Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Theories of Representation: For the District of Columbia, Only Statehood Will Do

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Theories of Representation: For the District of Columbia, Only Statehood Will Do

Article excerpt


The District of Columbia suffers uniquely for its position as the seat of the national government. Because it is not a state, it does not qualify for congressional representation and has no vote in the national legislature, even as to matters affecting entirely local interests.1 Indeed, Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution vests Congress with the power to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the District, which permits Congress to pass laws ranging from budget control to street sweeping.2 The fact that the District exercises any local authority at all arises from permission granted to it by Congress.3

Indeed, the District's uniquely impoverished democracy renders its situation even worse than that of the territories. Like residents of the District, people living in U.S. territories have no right to vote for members of Congress, their laws may be nullified by Congress, and, although they may send a delegate to Congress, the delegate has no vote.4 But, unlike a territory, the District has no historically settled path to statehood.5 The District has always been geographically part of the Union, and its citizens previously exercised, but then lost, the right to vote for members of the national legislature.6 Residents of the District must pay individual federal income taxes while, broadly speaking, those who reside in a territory are exempt from such taxation.7 Perhaps most offensive, however, is the propensity of members of Congress to use the District as a political plaything. For example, members have chosen to trumpet their opposition to financing poor women's abortions, needle exchanges, or medical marijuana by prohibiting local initiatives that would support such measures.8

This Essay posits that the only complete legal and moral remedy for the District's political subjugation is statehood, and it explains why remedies short of statehood are inadequate. The Essay then identifies the various paths to statehood. Finally, it discusses the strategic dilemma of the District either holding out exclusively for statehood or proceeding in incremental steps on that path.

I. The Case for Statehood

The 646,000 residents of the District of Columbia,9 unlike the residents of any other democratic capital in the world, have no vote in their national legislature.10 And this legislature, the Congress of the United States, exercises complete dominion over District residents.11 Because of this subordination, the District is sometimes called the "last colony."12 This current, abject condition was never envisioned and never intended by the Framers when they drafted the District Clause of the Constitution giving Congress full power "[t]o exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever"13 over the District.14

A. History of the District

To understand how this democratic anomaly came to be, we have to return to 1783 and the Confederation Congress. In June of that year, Congress, sitting in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, was besieged by soldiers of the Continental Army demanding back pay.15 Although the actual danger of the mutiny was likely exaggerated by federalists who sought a strong central government,16 and "historians do not agree on various details of what happened,"17 it is clear that Congress asked Pennsylvania for protection18 and Pennsylvania refused.19 Faced with the inability to expeditiously protect itself,20 the Congress adjourned and removed to Princeton, New Jersey.21 When drafting the Constitution a mere four years later, members of the Constitutional Convention were far more concerned with creating a federal seat that could protect the federal government than considering whether the residents of that seat would be represented in the Congress they were creating.22

Lack of concern for the residents of the District was perhaps not a glaring defect at the time. In 1790, the District was little more than a swamp, with significant settlements only at Georgetown and Alexandria. …

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