How About a 'Grand Compromise' on D.C. Statehood?
It was no surprise when D.C.’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduced a bill this month to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. After all, she had been doing so repeatedly since joining Congress in 1991.
Only one of the previous versions — in 1993 — made it to the House floor for debate and a vote, being defeated 277 to 153. This version could very well be the second to reach the House floor, thanks to a Democratic leadership eager to seize on any opportunity to paint Republicans as race oppressors and vote suppressors.
You see, it is well known that Republicans will not support statehood for the District of Columbia, where the majority of the population is black, but race is not the issue — politics is. Most of the population in the District — whether black, white or other — is Democrat through and through. Hillary Clinton won over 90 percent of the vote in 2016 while President Trump received a paltry 4 percent, virtually in Jill Stein territory. That makes D.C. statehood a long shot, even though the citizens of the district have a good argument that they are victims of history.
When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, the Founders included a provision for Congress to create a seat of government for the new country from land ceded by a state or states for such purpose. James Madison explained in Federalist No. 43 that the national capital had to be separate from the authority of any state to ensure that the federal government did not become dependent on an individual state.
Both Maryland and Virginia generously donated land for the capital district, but as a result, residents of those areas lost the right to vote in state and federal elections. The district was not qualified by the Constitution to have representation in Congress, nor could district residents have a meaningful vote for president until 1961, when the 23rd Amendment granted D.C. representation in the Electoral College as if it were a state.
In 1978, a new amendment was approved by Congress to repeal the 23rd Amendment and replace it with a provision that would grant full voting rights to the District of Columbia, with representation in Congress as well as the Electoral College. The amendment was ratified by 16 states, well short of the 38 required to be added to the Constitution. Not surprisingly, if you look at the list of states that supported the bill, they are mostly Northeastern Democratic strongholds. Again, politics was a deciding factor against the proposal. Republicans just didn’t see any advantage to granting the opposition party two more seats in the Senate and one more vote in the House. You can’t blame them.
But what if the members of Congress did what they are supposed to do? What if they looked for a compromise?
You see, conservatives such as myself are not unsympathetic to the wishes of D.C. residents to have full voting rights. I could easily support ceding most of the 68 square miles of land that makes up the district back to Maryland. After all, the federal system is much different than it was in 1787, and there is no reasonable fear that an individual state would try to hold the federal government hostage on account of where it was located. Moreover, the Congress could invent sufficient protections under law regarding matters of taxation or other specific powers currently held by the federal government that might be in conflict with statehood.
Little known is the fact that Congress already returned a portion of the original district to Virginia in 1846, as part of a concession with pro-slavery forces who feared that slavery would be outlawed in the district. As a result, all of the remaining land in the District of Columbia originated in Maryland, and could be returned to its jurisdiction through a similar maneuver. There is very little reason for Republicans to oppose such a move, as it would simply reinforce the Democratic majority in Maryland in Senate elections and add one safe Democratic seat in the House of Representatives. In other words, Eleanor Holmes Norton would see her position converted from a delegate to a full voting member.
It is a solution that would work, but at this point it is unlikely the Democrats would accept the proposal, worrying that it might seem dismissive of the mostly black population of Washington, D.C., and unwilling to give up the dream of two more Democratic senators made possible by statehood. Nor is there any certainty that Maryland would want to take on the responsibility inherent in such a move.
So is there any further way to ensure full suffrage for the District of Columbia? Oddly enough, the solution also comes from our nation’s dark history of slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Maine to enter the union as a free state by pairing it with Missouri as a slave state. The issue was the balance of power between pro-slave and anti-slave forces in the U.S. Senate, and while today we face no issue as fundamental as slavery, we do have a Senate that is just as fundamentally divided over a wide number of lesser issues. It seems logical, therefore, to seek out a compromise that would result in full citizenship for our residents in the District of Columbia.
Call it the Washington Compromise, not just for Washington, D.C., but also for the other component of the compromise — Eastern Washington, which for the past two decades and probably longer has been the vassal of Greater Seattle. Voters in the eastern part of Washington state have no realistic chance to elect governors or U.S. senators who will represent them, and they see their taxes going to Olympia to fund projects and agendas they don’t agree with. Why not free Eastern Washington at the same time you create the new state of Columbia?
It just might work. Admit Eastern Washington and the District of Columbia into the union simultaneously, and you will eliminate the main objection to D.C. statehood — namely, that the state of Columbia would tilt the Senate to the Democrats. Eastern Washington is a deeply conservative region that would assuredly vote Republican for the foreseeable future. The compromise is self-evident and almost poetic in its balance and harmony.
The main impediment to this solution would be the state of Washington itself, which in accordance with Article IV of the Constitution would have to consent to ceding its eastern half. Could Washington legislators be persuaded to agree to the proposal? Hard to know for sure, but by appealing to their conscience to respect the notion of self-determination for both D.C. and Eastern Washington, it might well be possible. Three states have already agreed to partitions, including Massachusetts in giving up Maine in the aforementioned compromise, so there is precedent for such an action.
Moreover, the proposal to grant statehood to rural Eastern Washington is not a new idea. Since the 19th century there have been several proposals for a new state involving the region in various configurations. It is fitting that the proposed name for the new state has often been Lincoln — after the president who abolished slavery, preserved the union and protected Washington, D.C., in the Civil War. Although the state has been envisioned as including the Idaho Panhandle as well as Eastern Washington, that might be a complication not worth adding to the mix. Getting approval from one state would be hard enough; no need to add Idaho unless the state’s legislature petitioned to Congress for inclusion.
What’s important is to address the historical wrong done to the citizens of the District of Columbia. If accomplishing that requires members of Congress to act like statesmen, they will just have to suck it up and get it done. Promoting fair representation for voters in Eastern Washington is an appropriate means to an end we should all agree is just. Whether we call it the Washington Compromise or the Lincoln Compromise, it’s an idea whose time has come.