In the wake of Congressional hearings on the possibility of D.C. statehood, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney published a “Perspective” piece promising to show that “the GOP’s three best arguments against D.C. statehood don’t stand up to scrutiny.” He further clarifies that Americans who believe in having a distinct national capital “have at most three arguments that deserve any respect” (emphasis added), though he does not attend to support that point.
After priming his audience by referencing what he considers the weakest arguments, McCartney turns his attention to “some arguments that merit attention, even if they ultimately come up short.” His analysis is glancing, avoiding the points being made each time, however. Here are his blind spots, in detail.
McCartney begins by addressing an argument that is not remotely common among conservatives. In a move odd for a liberal, he suggests that the founders’ obvious intention in having a sizeable capital district is a question that deserves consideration on its own. Was that the Founders’ vision? And would the leftover “federal enclave” be capable of doing its necessary functions?
He claims that if the present D.C. can call on neighboring states for help when needed, then a future rump capital could, too. Meanwhile, as far as the issue of shrinkage goes: “‘There’s no lower bound in there,’ said Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘If they knew how to say it couldn’t be larger than a certain size, they were also smart enough to say it couldn’t be smaller than a certain size, and they didn’t.’”
If you’re inclined to put any stock whatsoever in the wisdom of the Founders (they did construct a democracy that now holds the record for “world’s oldest,” and it isn’t particularly close) then their decision to place an upper bound of “ten miles square” can’t be ignored — certainly not given that they made that choice in an age when the business of the national government took up far less space than that. They did not designate a city block or two when that space would have been adequate. What would they have thought of our age when the executive branch employs millions of Americans and holds sway over the economy of the entire geographic region?
Moreover, one of the guiding principles behind the design of our national government was to counterbalance ambition with other ambition — to account for personal Interest to keep any agents from becoming too powerful. That’s the hidden (if partially defunct) genius behind the Senate: the people passing laws for the federal government had to justify to their more local State governments every issue they ceded from their authority and gave to D.C.
Carving out two votes in the Senate for D.C. — a motivating reason for statehood per se — spurns this perspicacity. It legitimizes a basic conflict of interest, inviting a city of government employees and beneficiaries to have their own votes in the growth of said government.
Retrocession to Maryland
For those burning to give the basic civil right of voting to residents of D.C., a question: why not return D.C. to Maryland?
If that sounds silly or unserious, realize that this already happened to the rest of the square D.C. used to be, on the Virginia side of the river — it was returned, not needed after all, in 1847.
This is McCartney’s second objection. It is the strongest point that proponents of a real national capital make, and it is the one McCartney offers the weakest rebuttal to. Actually, he offers two, both ineffective.
First: “But there’s a huge difference today. The Virginia retrocession occurred with the approval of both the affected residents at the time — living in what is now the city of Alexandria and Arlington County — and the Richmond legislature . . . The opposite is true now. District residents don’t want to rejoin Maryland. They voted by 86 percent in a referendum endorsing statehood. Maryland isn’t supportive either. A Washington Post poll in 2019 found Marylanders opposed making the District one of their counties by 57 percent to 36 percent.”
D.C. voted for the Democrat presidential nominee with 91%, 90%, and 92% of their vote in the last three elections. Is their 86% unwillingness to join Maryland a reflection of their reluctance to join Maryland, or an expression of their desire for their own two senators? One could pose the same question about Maryland, which went 62%, 60%, and 65% blue in the last three presidential votes.
Either way, it’s not relevant. If the Democrats are sincere in their protestations about “the American values of equality, fairness, and full democracy,” then they can’t attach stipulations to pressing, fundamental rights. It would be wrong of them to delay such a solution.
McCartney quotes Maryland’s Congressman Raskin saying, “The question of retrocession is an irrelevant distraction when the people of Washington have already written a state constitution and petitioned to join the union as their own state.”
A distraction? The Maryland retrocession proposal is so perfect a direct address to the stated (or rather, yelled) complaints of Democrats that it’s almost like something out of Getting To Yes, the how-to on negotiating. Democrats are upset about Washingtonians’ lack of congressional votes and demand statehood. Republicans suggest that Washington be re-integrated with Maryland to provide Washingtonians congressional votes without gerrymandering partisan seats into existence in the Senate. Democrats resist because . . . the Senate seats are what this is really about, after all.
This is one of the least popularly appealing points made, even if it may present one of the most solid legal issues. The 23rd Amendment states:
“The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.”
The ironic legacy of this product of the 1960’s is that this bona fide part of the Constitution cements the District’s status as an entity that may be as populous as some state but is assuredly not one — exactly the sort of thing it is, in other words, though not the sort of thing that would be left over after removing all but two square miles of federal offices, monuments, and museums.
Even the ACLU comments that congressional law alone could not make this partitioning legal, and McCartney allows that Republicans refusing to repeal this amendment in the wake of statehood might win an ultimate victory in the courts. It is little, frankly, in the way of rebuttal. McCartney offers, “I think the best solution is to press for repeal but meanwhile have Congress direct the shrunken district’s electoral votes be cast according to the nationwide popular vote — two electoral votes for the winner and one for the loser.”
This is quite the committee solution — but hardly an ideologically (or legally) pure one for our national elections.
Let Americans Have A Capital
D.C.’s lack of statehood is, according to the likes of MCartney, “one of America’s most glaring failures to live up to its ideal of representative government.” That remains to be seen. In an era when conflict of interest was impressed on the public as a primary concern, one should hesitate before giving a town of federal employees a direct say in federal leadership — in the legislative body designed to keep power diffused among the states, not concentrated in an absolute mass. If D.C.’s lack of the franchise is such a failure at all, then that failure lies at the feet of those who hold their representation hostage until they can receive legislative votes reserved specially for themselves.
McCartney began his attempt at a refutation with the sneering comment that, “as GOP leaders are increasingly willing to admit publicly, they care primarily about preventing the deep-blue District from sending two additional Democrats to the Senate and one to the House.”
Like the rest of his piece, this assault backfires. It speaks directly to how Democrats primarily care about adding two additional Democrats to the U.S. Senate — rather than living up to any sort of ideals.