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The House just voted for Washington DC to become a state, almost exclusively along party lines. While the arguments for statehood aren't new, equality for ethnic minorities is a greater concern following the death of George Floyd. But the bill isn't expected to pass the Senate, and the POTUS has said he'd veto it anyway, citing the extra Democrats it would add to both chambers in Congress.

So presumably, the Democrats did this for optics: as with many bills, it shows the voters how the parties differ. But this particular one doesn't have obvious national appeal, which leads to my question: what do they hope to gain from this? Is the hope purely that voters across the US will be impressed with the signalled pro-democracy, anti-racism priorities?

Edit: to clarify, since a comment & answer have each been posted that proved I need to: I know if it passed the Democrats would have more seats (I made that point myself), and I know that's why they won't get it, and my question is what other motive they could have given that they know that too.

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    It seems like this is just an instance of the general question: Why does one house pass a bill that they know will be defeated in the other house? Or why even propose a bill that you know will be defeated (e.g. all the attempts to repeal Obamacare during Obama's presidency)? – Barmar Jun 29 at 15:02
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    @Barmar It's more than that. Often such bills signal how they'd like to help people, but the DC issue is unusual in that the directly helped people are very geographically concentrated. – J.G. Jun 29 at 15:30
  • There is a bigger issue of whether the House should vote to do what they consider to be the right thing even when they know it is doomed in the Senate. I think they should, I think it's their job. – David Elm Jul 1 at 17:56
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One of the core issues, beyond claims it's all about increasing Senatorial power for a party, is that of representation and enfranchisement of US citizens; tax-paying ones, in this case (raising some ironic "no taxation without representation" connections). The district has about 705,000 people residing in it, absolutely none of whom is represented in the Senate, and who only have a single non-voting representative in the House. By comparison, the 4 smallest states in the US by population are:

  1. Wyoming: 578,759
  2. Vermont: 623,989
  3. Alaska: 731,545
  4. North Dakota: 762,062

Two of them have fewer people than DC does (as of the 2010 census), and the other two are only slightly more populous. All of them have voting members representing their interests in both chambers.* So the simple argument is why do we tolerate some 700,000 citizens having zero Congressional representation, when there are entire states with fewer people and full representation? In the early days of the country DC simply wasn't populous enough for this to present much of an issue, but in modern times it's becoming an increasingly large issue.

This also ties into issues of local self determination. The district currently has an elected government of its own, but it is ultimately subordinate to Congress itself. Congress has total, constitutionally granted, authority over the District (and it is not clear to me if statehood could do anything to resolve this short of an amendment). Congress can override and replace any of the laws of the district at any time. To put that into perspective, how much would you like it if Senators and Representatives from states completely different from yours could overturn and rewrite your own state's laws? How happy would Texans be if the other states just up and decided to change their gun laws (or lack thereof) against their will? It's even worse than that for DC, as not only do other states get to exercise total authority over them, but DC itself has no voting power at all in this decision.

The particularly high concentration of African Americans in the district further compounds things with racial issues, in particular a long running (and seemingly still ongoing) tendency in the country to disenfranchise blacks and other non-white populations, and put them under the total control and mercy of whites.


*And let's not forget that Puerto Rico, if made a state, would be the 31st most populous in the country: 20 states currently existing have less people in them than Puerto Rico does (at over 3m citizens). Yet Puerto Rico still has no representation. Note that while Puerto Ricans by default do not have to pay Federal Income tax, they do pay most all other forms of Federal taxes, providing several billion a year in tax revenues to the US; about the same that Wyoming and Vermont provide (including their Federal income tax).

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    @Obie2.0 It's curious to note that DC citizens actually had no say in presidential elections (it was illegal for them to vote in them) prior to the ratification of the 23rd amendment in 1961. So it's a pretty new thing for them. – zibadawa timmy Jun 29 at 11:15
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    The constitutional authority question would be resolved by making the "district" over which Congress has absolute authority over very small; and the area in which people live its own state. – Azor Ahai -him- Jun 29 at 16:58
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    @Bobson It's politics. Advancing an issue is the why, for all the usual reasons everyone is familiar with. – zibadawa timmy Jun 30 at 12:42
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    While I totally agree with the contents of this answer, this doesn't even attempt to answer the question as asked. It just explains the problem. Why is it accepted, is beyond me. – o0'. Jun 30 at 15:14
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    @Vector, thanks. I hadn’t before seen Maryland’s legislation ceding the territory. It’s pretty conclusive. – prl Jul 1 at 1:09
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After your edits I interpret your question to essentially be:

Why would politicians propose or vote for things they know won't pass into legislation?

There is nothing particularly Democratic (or Republican) about this, politicians of all colors do this. Some of the reasons I can think of are:

  • Give visibility to the issue. I had never heard about this issue before. Now I have. If I was a US voter it would maybe affect my vote, or motivate me to go vote.
  • Show their supporters that they are at least trying. Important to battle the "all politicians are the same, nobody is fighting for us" feeling.
  • Force "the other side" to make a public stand on the issue, and open them up for a "why do you hate democracy?"-attack.
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    I think in this specific case, your point three (why does the other side hate democracy? attack) is probably the real reason, since the other side in this case is going heavy on a a "fake votes" attack. And it looks pretty successful, since they've already gotten high visibility of the other side publicly saying that DC shouldn't be given representation for partisan reasons. (Instead of the normal ways of arguing on some procedural grounds, etc.) Although the stated reasons tend more towards point two, "moral high ground". – user3067860 Jun 29 at 15:58
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    @user3067860 That said, "We shouldn't give these people the right to vote because we know they'll never vote for us" is not a good look no matter how they try to couch it... – Shadur Jul 1 at 8:17
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    @Shadur Well, there's also "refer it to committee to make sure it's done the right way" and other ways politicians have of quietly killing things that they don't want, but also don't want to say that they don't want. Not really convincing the opposing side that you're good guys, but providing plausible deniability in the minds of people who already vote for you. – user3067860 Jul 1 at 12:34
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    @user3067860 The fact that they don't even bother with that fig leaf anymore should be a big ol' red flag to anyone paying attention... – Shadur Jul 1 at 12:36
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The push isn't new, with efforts starting in the 1980s to make a new state. With the current racial tensions running high, it should be noted that Washington D.C. is 49% black. They currently get no voting representation in Congress, although the District gets 3 Electoral College votes, the same as if it were a state.

Senate seats

If Washington D.C becomes a state, then the Senate goes to 102 Senators, with two new D.C. Senators. These would almost certainly be Democrat as Washington D.C. is overwhelmingly Democrat

The District of Columbia's at-large congressional district is ranked on the Cook PVI, as it participates in presidential elections. It is represented by a non-voting delegate. Its rank is D+43. Territorial districts are not ranked on the Cook PVI, as they do not participate in presidential elections.

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    It is kind of horrific that who the people who live there would vote for is at all relevant in the debate. – Jontia Jun 29 at 8:45
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    @Jontia It's actually been the turning point for statehood in a lot (most?) of cases. Remember the Mason-Dixon line? A pre-Civil War compromise whereby states would be admitted in pairs, one above the line without slavery, one below with slavery. All to artificially maintain a "balance" between pro-slavery and abolitionist politics. Oklahoma was originally two territories that got combined into one, in part because Eastern states were concerned that adding two more western states would start to tip the political balance away from Eastern interests. – zibadawa timmy Jun 29 at 10:28
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    @zibadawatimmy You are thinking of the Missouri Compromise. The Mason-Dixon line formed parts of various borders between Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. It predates the Missouri Compromise by 60-70 years, thought it served as the symbolic border between the increasingly anti-slavery North and pro-slavery South. – chepner Jun 29 at 21:42
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    @dan04 One could argue that adding DC would already be correcting an existing imbalance, given the large number of sparsely populated red states. – chepner Jun 29 at 21:45
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    @JonathanReez Many people live in particular places because it is either the only place close enough to their jobs to be practical, is the only place they can afford to live, or for many other reasons. It isn't reasonable to assume that people can just move from DC to another state without significant personal costs. Also "if its [sic] that important for them", voting and representation is a fundamental constitutional right in America, and citizens shouldn't be deprived of that representation based on where they live – Kevin Wells Jul 1 at 17:50
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It's pretty clearly purely for the sake of optics.

In particular, note that this measure did not come up when we had a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic President so it stood at least some chance of being passed.

There's a pretty simple reason for that. The US Constitution (article 1, Section 8) says:

The Congress shall have Power
[...]
17: 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 [...]

Although it hadn't been ceded or named yet when the Constitution was written, that's describing Washington DC--the seat of the Government of the United States.

As a state, Washington DC would have its own government that was not entirely subordinate to the federal Congress1. So, Congress would no longer be able to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over Washington DC.

Washington DC is the one piece of land in the US that is prohibited by the Constitution from becoming a state. If they honestly wanted it to become a state, what they would have drafted would have been an amendment to the constitution.

So, they passed a bill that they not only know won't pass the Senate, but that (they know even better than we do) would be blatantly unconstitutional if it were signed into law.

So what we have is a bill that's pure, unadulterated "posing". Those who wrote and voted for it know full well that it won't become law, and more importantly realize that even if the Senate and President were amenable, it still couldn't become law, because it would be blatantly unconstitutional.

At the same time, they can use it for talking points during an election they clearly believe is going to be difficult. Rather than admit that the Senate ignored it because it was obviously unconstitutional, they'll try to push the notion that Republicans opposed it because they're anti-democratic, racist, etc. And, there's little question that to at least some extent, this will succeed.

On one hand, it's absolutely true that modern Republicans are extremely prone to believing certain conspiracy theories, even ones that are utterly silly and lack any factual support (e.g., Birthers).

It is, however, also true that modern Democrats are equally willing to believe equally silly nonsense with equal lack of factual support. In the case of Democrats, this takes a somewhat different form. It's largely a belief that if I espouse a measure I claim will benefit marginalized group X, then any opposition to it can stem only from hating X2.

Purely in theory, you can sort of get around the constitutional problems by writing the law not to turn all of Washington DC into a state, but to instead just "shrink" Washington DC to include only the capital building, white house, etc., so you still have some minuscule area of land that's officially the seat of government, but the actual residents of the area all live in the new state.

Dealing with that at all well also requires a constitutional amendment though. The problem is pretty simple: under the 23rd amendment, Washington DC gets 3 electoral votes, just like it would if it were a state. If we shrink Washington DC so it has no residents, those electoral votes now represent...virtually nobody. Essentially the only people we could claim were residents and being represented by those electoral votes would be the first family, since they reside in the White House, which would almost certainly have to be considered part of the seat of government (and even that would be a change--the first family normally retain residency in their home state, so (for example) in the last election, Trump voted in New York.

So even if we skirt the primary constitutional issue itself, we immediately run into another that's equally problematic (i.e., also requires a constitutional amendment to fix).


  1. ...in contrast to its municipal government, which is subordinate to the Congress. From a legal viewpoint, the DC municipal government is basically a "hired hand" acting on behalf of congress. Congress essentially has veto power over any action taken by the municipal government. Congress can change the rules under which it operates or (in theory) could even abolish the municipal government and administer it directly. In contrast, a state government is an independent entity acting on its own behalf, with full power to make its own laws, even if those are contrary to the wishes of the federal government (e.g., legalizing drugs that are prohibited by the federal government).
  2. As opposed to, for just a few examples, thinking your measure will be ineffective, do more harm than good, benefit X but only at the expense of group Y who need help just as badly, provide minimal benefits at exorbitant costs, or simply falls within the range of powers granted to the states rather than the federal gov't.
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    Disagree. Washington, D.C. already has its own municipal government, and by your argument, that government would be unconstitutional. Just as the existence of a city council and mayor is no obstacle to the primacy of Congress, since they have delegated their authority and can veto any decisions, I imagine that if the mayor were renamed to a governor, and the council to a legislature, the District would stay quite constitutional. – Obie 2.0 Jun 29 at 9:59
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    I'm not sure how this answers the actual question, which is what the Democrats hope to gain from this. You've mentioned "optics", but what are those optics? How are they hoping to be perceived by submitting this bill? – F1Krazy Jun 29 at 10:01
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    Nor would DC having elected national representatives necessarily have any bearing on their local political organization at all.... Since Congress explicitly has the power to admit states into the Union, it should be a piece of cake, regardless of what the municipal system of government is. – Obie 2.0 Jun 29 at 10:02
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    @JerryCoffin I'm not a legal scholar, but there is historical precedent for removal of land from D.C. In 1847, the portion of the District of Columbia south of the Potomac was retroceded to Virginia. This action has not been challenged in court, but it seems that the primary argument against is that Virginia is in violation of its cession agreement, not that Congress overstepped their authority. This seems to leave open the possibility that Congress (by means of "exclusive Legislation") could dissolve the district and then reincorporate it as a state under the Constitution's Admissions Clause. – Andrew Ray Jun 29 at 18:46
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    @AndrewRay: Actually, the action was challenged in court (Phillips v. Payne) but it was dismissed on technical grounds, without ruling on its constitutionality. A fair number of people (including Taft, who was president at the time) believed it was unconstitutional, because under the original contract, the states: "forever cede and relinquish" the territory, so retrocession would violate that contract. Since the federal government accepted the territory on condition of its becoming the district, trying to turn it into a state would violate the same contract as well. – Jerry Coffin Jun 29 at 19:00

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