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D.C. Inches Closer to Becoming the 51st State

The plan to achieve statehood easily won voters' support on Tuesday. But will it win the support of Congress?

bowser1
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser
Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

While some states want to amend the U.S. Constitution to change Washington, the city itself is on track to adopt its own constitution to become a state.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser pushed for a state constitution as a means of convincing Congress that the nation’s capital is ready for statehood. Voters gave the idea their overwhelming approval on Tuesday.

Residents "wanted to be treated like every American," Bowser told the Washington Post Tuesday night. "We need equality, and the only way to get there is with statehood."

The question now returns to the city council, which will be in charge of approving a constitution.

It's still a long, highly uncertain road to statehood, but it’s an idea that has long had popular appeal locally. District license plates complain about “Taxation Without Representation,” since D.C. has no congressional vote. Congress, which oversaw district affairs prior to granting home rule four decades ago, continues to overturn local laws on a wide range of issues, including gun control and abortion access. D.C. tried a similar strategy in 1982, when voters approved a previous version of a constitution. 

Bowser’s push drew complaints that the process is being rushed. A draft constitution was approved by a commission made up of Bowser and four other members, with limited public input. Voters, having granted the city council authority to write a final version, will not be given a say over the language in the final document.  

Bowser dismissed all the complaints, saying that there has been consensus around all but a handful of items in the new constitution. 

She’s modeled this approach after one used more than two centuries ago by Tennessee, which was admitted as a state in 1796 after approving a constitution as a territory.

The glaring weakness with this strategy is that Congress is highly unlikely to be persuaded. If the overwhelmingly Democratic city were to become a state, that would create a new Democratic House seat and two Democratic senators. A Congress under Republican control will never go along with that idea. Even when Congress was controlled by Democrats back in 1993, the House voted down statehood handily.

If Congress ever did make D.C. the 51st state, however, all the concerns that have been expressed about Bowser’s process would slip away. Once a state is a state, it can rewrite its constitution any way it likes and there’s nothing Congress or anyone other than the Supreme Court can say about it.

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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