June 21, 2012 – Essay #89 – Proposed Amendment: D.C. Statehood – Guest Essayist: Nathaniel Stewart, Attorney
Proposed Amendment: D.C. Statehood Amendment:
District of Columbia Statehood Proposal:
Section 1. For purposes of representation in the Congress, election of the President and Vice President, and article V of this Constitution, the District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall be treated as though it were a State.
Section 2. The exercise of the rights and powers conferred under this article shall be by the people of the District constituting the seat of government, and as shall be provided by the Congress.
Section 3. The twenty-third article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 4. This article shall be inoperative, unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.
The nation’s capital city, Washington, DC, is a federal city, and it constitutes “the seat of Government of the United States.” After great debate and deliberation over the location for the nation’s capital, the Founding generation settled upon a compromise in 1791. Congress first raised the subject of a permanent capital for the government of the United States in 1783, and it was ultimately addressed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution (1787), which gave the Congress legislative authority 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. …” In 1788, Maryland gave to Congress “any district in this State, not exceeding ten miles square,” and in 1789 the state of Virginia ceded an equivalent amount of land. In accordance with the “Residence Act” passed by Congress in 1790, President Washington in 1791 personally selected the diamond-shaped area along the shores of the Potomac River that is now the District of Columbia.
The Founders well-understood that the District of Columbia was under the control and jurisdiction of Congress itself, and the city was not itself a state, nor did it sit within the boundaries of any existing state. This helped to ensure the federal government’s independence from state politics or inter-state quarrels that might develop and hinder federal action. As a federal district, however, the capital did not have an elected local governor, nor did city residents have the right vote in national elections.
Nearly 200 years later, in 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution granted District residents the right to vote in Presidential elections, and it gave the District the number of electors in the electoral-college that it would have if it were a state. The amendment did go so far as to provide the District with its own Senators or members of Congress, but the District has since gained a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.
A decade later, the left-wing political activist Julius Hobson formed the D.C. Statehood Green Party, which began campaigning for statehood for the District. The movement for statehood, helped by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, was instrumental in Congress passing the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, granting the city an elected mayor and city council.
The movement pressed on, seeking full statehood for the District, and in 1978 Congress passed the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment. The amendment was then sent it to the states for ratification. The new amendment would have repealed the 23rd Amendment and given the District four electors (instead of three), as well as voting members in the Senate and House of Representatives. The proposed amendment met with stiff opposition from the states who feared that granting the District voting members in Congress would dilute their own representation. According to its terms, the proposed amendment would be “inoperative” if it was not ratified within seven years of the date it was submitted for ratification. The deadline for ratification was August 22, 1985, and only sixteen of the fifty states had ratified the proposal before the time limit had expired, well-short of the thirty-eight needed for ratification.
In 1980, DC residents passed the District of Columbia Statehood Constitutional Convention of 1979, calling for a constitutional convention for a new state. Two years later, voters ratified the constitution for “New Columbia,” the proposed 51st state in the Union, but the campaign for statehood stalled after the proposed DC Voting Rights Amendment failed in 1985. Since then, statehood advocates have periodically proposed legislation to enact the “New Columbia” state constitution, but it has never been passed by Congress, and the last serious congressional debate on the issue took place in November 1993, when D.C. a statehood proposal was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 277 to 153. Much of the momentum has since dissipated from the statehood campaign, and it is unlikely to be revisited by Congress or ratified by the several states anytime soon.
 U.S. Const. Amendment 23.
Nathaniel Stewart is an attorney in Washington, D.C.