Twenty-two Republican attorneys general are threatening legal action if Congress passes and President Joe Biden signs a bill making D.C. the 51st state, claiming such an effort is "unconstitutional" and "bad policy."
In a letter sent to Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday, the chief legal officers from states including Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, and North Dakota argued that the Washington D.C. Admissions Act, introduced by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in 2019 and again earlier this year, is unconstitutional and would create an uneven balance of power between the states.
The Republican attorneys general reiterated the oft-made argument that D.C. statehood would violate the vision the Founding Fathers had for the country, citing James Madison and his warnings of any one state exercising excessive influence over the federal government. They also claimed that granting D.C. statehood would empower the city's residents in an unfair manner.
"Its enactment would be antithetical to our representative democratic republic and it would constitute an unprecedented aggrandizement of an elite ruling class with unparalleled power and Federal access compared to the remaining fifty states of the Union," they wrote in the letter.
At a congressional hearing last month, a scholar from the right-wing Heritage Foundation made a similar argument, saying that D.C. residents already have outsized influence in national debates because they can put up yard signs that are then seen by members of Congress.
The letter goes on to say that Congress does not have the authority to carve a new state out of the land D.C. sits on. As written, Norton's bill would shrink the size of the federal district and convert the remaining land into a new state. Supporters of the bill say that while the Constitution sets a size of the federal district at 10 miles squared, it doesn't specifically say it can't be smaller than that. (In a footnote, the attorneys general conceded that Congress did shrink the federal district in 1846, when it approved the retrocession of Alexandria and Arlington to Virginia.)
The attorneys general also suggest that residents knew what they were getting into when they moved to the District. "For over two centuries, the District's residents have all willingly lived there with an understanding of its unique nature," the letter reads. (The letter doesn't address the enslaved residents who once lived in D.C., largely unwillingly.)
The letter comes as Republicans across the country have ramped up their attacks on D.C. statehood, at times deploying new — and sometimes unconventional — arguments. At a recent House committee hearing, Republican lawmakers pushed back against statehood by citing D.C.'s alleged lack of car dealerships (which we totally have) and warning of a possible shortage of parking spaces for staffers that would result. Before that, a U.S. senator declared that D.C. does not have enough loggers and miners to qualify as a state.
Bills pushing D.C. statehood have come and gone for decades, but never made it through Congress. Momentum picked up last year when the House passed Norton's statehood bill, and got a further boost recently when Democrats took control of Congress and Biden endorsed the cause.
In an interview with DCist, Norton said she remains unfazed by the attorneys general arguments against statehood. She said she believes it actually buttresses the case that Congress can choose to carve a new state out of the federal district.
"I am overjoyed that what they cite supports our case for statehood," Norton told DCist. "For example, they cite the part of the Constitution that says Congress should exercise exclusive legislation over all cases. Well, that's exactly what the Congress is doing right now."
Activists have long argued that statehood is the best and most just means to bring voting representation to the District's population, which at more than 700,000 residents is more than the population of either Vermont or Wyoming. They also say that Black residents, who once comprised the majority of the city, are grappling from years of racism, oppression, and voter disenfranchisement. Statehood would also clear the way for local government oversight independent of federal approval.
In a 2016 referendum, 86% of Washingtonians voted in favor of making D.C. the 51st state.
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will debate and vote on Norton's bill, with a full House vote slated for April 19. After that it heads to the Senate, where the bill faces bleaker prospects, largely because the chamber is so closely divided and key Democrats say they oppose doing away with the filibuster.
Still, Norton said she remains upbeat about the prospects for D.C. statehood.
"What these hearings show is that for the first time we are exposing to the American people what the status of their own capital is," Norton said.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.