On Thursday, House Democrats passed HR 51, a bill that aims to grant statehood to the nation’s capital. The possibility of adding a 51 state would offer a seismic shakeup to the composition of U.S. politics and tip the balance of power in the Senate toward Democrats.
Though two states with lesser populations than Washington D.C.—Wyoming and Vermont—already enjoy full representation in Congress, the hopeful bill seems poised for death upon arrival in the Senate, where Republicans (and even the West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin) will more than likely vote against statehood.
D.C. statehood is hardly a new idea dreamt up by political radicals; rather, it’s an old legislative chestnut previously voted on by Congress in 1993, 2009, and by the House just last June, only to fall short of passing both chambers all three times. In January, the issue was given new life by Washington, D.C.’s sole (and non-voting) House representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, who introduced HR 51, also known as Washington, D.C. Admission Act.
Upon its introduction, the bill boasted 202 co-sponsors and received vocal support from returning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and a variety of online cheerleaders. Though granting statehood to a new municipality isn’t an easy task—and hasn’t happened since the 1959 inductions of Alaska and Hawaii into the Union—it’s long been an issue that Congressional Democrats have pledged to attack with gusto when it comes to the nation’s capital.
Here’s how the process might unfold if the Senate were to actually ratify the motion, as well as a bit on the motivations for seeking D.C. statehood, and how the political landscape would be affected if it actually happens.
How do states become states?
It’s a process rooted deep in the Constitution. In a general sense, the granting of statehood is typically determined by Congress, under the Admissions Clause of the Constitution. Sixty years after we added the last stars to the flag, it’s easy to forget that the United States is really an ongoing project, one that has gradually accrued more territory since the start of the 18th century. That said, the admittance of new states hasn’t exactly followed a predetermined pattern across the centuries.
But as the legal scholars Eric Biber and Thomas B. Colby write for the National Constitutional Center, despite the peculiarities of different situations, the admission of new states has always merited oversight from Congress:
The Admissions Clause provides that admission of a state requires at least one Act of Congress. However, Congress has often followed a more complicated process. For many admitted states, Congress first passed an Enabling Act, which authorized the population of a territory to convene a constitutional convention to draft a constitution for the new proposed state, and to apply for admission to Congress. Often in the Enabling Act, Congress specified a range of conditions that the proposed state had to meet in order for admission to occur. These conditions varied widely across time and states.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the constitutional minutiae, and the authors freely admit “the Constitution provides almost no guidance as to how Congress should exercise” the Admissions Clause. It is, like many things wedded to Constitutional scholarship, a complicated issue, and open to interpretation. But generally speaking, there are rules governing how to states become states. According to the actual text of the clause:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
How is Washington, D.C. different?
Washington, D.C. has been the nation’s capital since 1790. It’s a city, and thus markedly different from the vast, sprawling wilds of Alaska and Hawaii, or even the relative confines of Rhode Island. In order to make D.C. a state, the current bill floating through congress intends to effectively shrink the geographic size of the city in order to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution’s Enclave Clause, which gives Congress full control of federal districts no bigger than 10 square miles. As you might have guessed, it’s a process overwhelmingly dictated by Constitutional doctrine.
Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University, detailed the broader process to Lifehacker in an email:
The pending DC statehood bill would reduce the current district’s borders to a much smaller district encompassing the national mall and surrounding federal buildings, satisfying the clause’s requirements. The bill then cedes the remaining area to a new state, Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, which would approve a state constitution and elect federal senators and a representative, delegates to the Electoral College, a governor, and state legislators.
Woodward-Burns explains that legislative barriers involved would be easily overcome, as the “Supreme Court has affirmed that the Enclave Clause gives Congress the power to redraw district borders and cede district land.”
How much would D.C. statehood change national politics?
Quite a lot, actually. D.C. has enjoyed three Electoral College votes since the adoption of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, but its entry into the Union as a state would help Democrats claw back more permanent territory in the Senate—historically, D.C. residents have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates for president. As Woodward-Burns explains, it may seem like a naked power grab at first blush, but this kind of move is not without precedent.
He wrote to Lifehacker:
As Republicans have made inroads with rural voters in low population states, the GOP has gained disproportionate Senate power, taking narrow Senate majorities over the last few years, and pushing Democrats to admit D.C. as a state and gain two Democratic senators. While this might seem like a baldly partisan tactic by Democrats, this is the norm in the statehood process – in 1889/90, the GOP added six new states to claim 12 new Senate seats.
Making D.C. a state would grant a population of nearly 700,000 tax-paying Americans representation in Congress that they’ve never previously enjoyed. The city’s population exceeds that of both Wyoming and Vermont, each of which is represented by two democratically elected Senators.
The argument, in effect, is to give the people of the nation’s capital equal footing with everyone else in America. And it’s looking more and more like that could possibly happen.
This article was originally published in January 2021 and updated on April 22, 2021 to add additional context surrounding congressional votes to forward D.C. statehood.