DC Statehood Is a Fool's Errand

The many reasons “New Columbia” won't be the fifty-first state.

Say this for the proponents of DC statehood: they’re persistent. Pursuing what the sympathetic editorial board of the Washington Post calls “the longest of long shots,” they press on, despite the inestimable constitutional and political hurdles before them. In mid-April, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser released an ambitious plan to make “New Columbia” the nation’s fifty-first state. Days later, members of the city’s New Columbia Statehood Commission voted unanimously to back the plan, which calls for a constitutional convention to ready a DC statehood advisory referendum for DC’s November ballot. And in early May, the commission released a draft constitution at President Lincoln’s historic cottage.

Why the full-court press? Political opportunity: the mayor and the commission don’t want to be “flat-footed” after the next president and Congress are elected. They want a “complete package” from DC voters to be ready for what the mayor thinks “is going to turn out to be a historic election in November.” Included in that package will be a fifty-state outreach program, a plan for lobbying businesses as well as politicians at the presidential conventions, and a proposal for the new boundaries of New Columbia.

New boundaries? We come thus to the central problem—the Constitution. In its recent commentary, the Post’s editors wrote that “the new state would exclude a small federal enclave, thus making a constitutional amendment unnecessary.” Alas, few are the constitutional scholars who believe that doing that will render a constitutional amendment unnecessary. Here’s why.

To start, the proposal, based on the stillborn New Columbia Admission Act of 2013, contemplates leaving in place as “the District” a tiny federal enclave consisting of the National Mall and the bits of land and certain buildings that immediately surround it: the White House, probably the Supreme Court and perhaps a few other buildings, all to be determined. Call it “New Washington”—it would be a shell of what we think of today as “Washington, DC.”

The Constitution, however, draws no distinction between “the Seat of the Government of the United States” and the “District” in which the government is seated. In fact, the District just is the seat of the government. As the Enclave Clause of Article I, Section 8 says in relevant part: “The Congress shall have Power To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” To be sure, the Framers did not set a minimum size for the seat of the new government. Seizing on that fact, statehood proponents claim that they can carve out a tiny enclave from what for over two hundred years has been the seat of the federal government, call it the (new) District of Columbia, or whatever else they might want to call it, and turn the rest of today’s district into a new state—all without amending the Constitution. It’s a tall order, and most certainly to fail.

As I argued during Senate hearings on the 2013 bill, and as many others have argued over the years, although the Framers did not set a minimum size for the district, their mention of “ten Miles square,” together with Congress’s nearly contemporaneous creation in 1790 of a district ten miles square from land ceded to the federal government by Maryland and Virginia, is strong evidence of what they intended—and strong evidence, too, against this enclave scheme. In effect, the proposal would strip Congress’s present authority over today’s District of Columbia simply by redefining “the District.”