Being a state should not be an issue to be discussed in a democratic country. Not when it comes to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America, not to be confused with the state of Washington, the first located on the east coast, the second north-west of America, on the Pacific coast and near the Canadian border.
It is not a difference so obvious even for the Americans, helped however by an acronym that for centuries indicates the federal district to which it belongs: the US Constitution provided for a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of the US Congress, and in the early Nineteenth century the District of Columbia Organic Act officially organized the District and placed the entire territory under the exclusive control of the federal government.
Two centuries ago the district included the counties of Washington and Alexandria, a referendum first and then a further Act abolished Washington County and donated Alexandria to the state of Virginia. This ensured that the City of Washington and the District of Columbia became one same entity, sharing its legal status.
Today Washington, D.C. covers an area of 177 square kilometres, although the metropolitan area is also developed on seven counties in the state of Maryland, five counties in Virginia and five autonomous cities of the same state.
A bit confusing for the city that houses the main institutions of the government of the United States, from the President to the Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as ministries, federal agencies and various international organizations.
So far so good, except that the capital of the United States does not benefit from the same rights as the rest of the country: “taxation without representation”, reads the message on most of the license plates in the district and that has become popular among over 700,000 residents, more than those in the states of Vermont and Wyoming.
So why a district and not a state? Among the aims of the Founding Fathers there was the will to ensure that the American capital remained autonomous and not under pressure from politics, but today the discussion is different. The politician who represents the District of Columbia at the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has no permission to vote on the final passage of any legislation and therefore is of no importance in the Senate.
Despite the Section 8 of the first Article of the Constitution reading that “[the Congress has the 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 […],” it is not explicitly said that Washington, D.C. cannot become a State.
Only in 2019, was the historic hearing discussed at the US House of Representatives on the district’s statehood, the first hearing in 26 years. Legislation strongly supported by Norton that would grant the District of Columbia a voting representative in the House – the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 – was passed by the United States Senate on February 26, 2009. However, the legislation stalled in the House and failed to pass before the end of the 111th Congress.
Supporting the Democratic politician, also the mayor of Washington, D.C. Muriel Bowser, born and raised in the American capital and charge since 2014.
“True liberty demands that every resident has representation,” reads the website of the city government dedicated to the statehood action. The week of events and demonstrations that preceded the hearing started with hundreds of flags with 51 stars put up down Pennsylvania Avenue NW – between the White House and the Capitol – to emphasize the opinion of the Mayor Bowser’s office.
“And yes, we are indeed more brown and more liberal than some of you, but denying statehood would be unfair no matter who was affected. It would be unfair if we were conservatives from a rural district built around agriculture, or an industrial city in the heartland. This is America, and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law, and that is why we are demanding statehood”. This is how the mayor boomed during the hearing referring to the law H.R. 51, proposed by Norton in the beginning of 2019, and which seems to have found enough cosponsors to nearly assure passage totalling to 218 voting cosponsors.
Back to November 2016, the citizens of Washington, D.C. had a chance to vote for the first time for statehood, casting ballots in favour of petitioning Congress to allow it to become the 51st American state and be represented in the US Congress. The referendum showed that 87 per cent of the district voters were overwhelmingly in favour of statehood, and only 13 per cent dissenting. But a Gallup survey published last June found that only 29 per cent of Americans as a whole support statehood, with 64 per cent opposing it.
Before the final decision of the Senate, if D.C. could not become a state, Washingtonians would continue to pay the same federal taxes as other American States do, without being represented and without the possibility of seeing an historic moment like this soon.