On April 22, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on H.R. 51, a bill to admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state of the Union.
D.C.’s lack of voting representation in Congress is a matter of fairness that deserves to be addressed, but H.R. 51’s proponents are advocating the wrong solution.
The Founding Fathers wanted the nation’s capital to stand alone, not be the first among equals as a state along with the others. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 43, “a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to” other states.
Madison’s reasoning withstands the test of time, as legal experts in both Democratic and Republican administrations recognized throughout most of our history. Then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy wrote in the 1960s, “It was indispensably necessary to the independence and the very existence of the new Federal Government to have a seat of government which was not subject to the jurisdiction or control of any State.”
Another flaw of the statehood proposal is that the states that originally donated land for the seat of the Federal Government, Maryland and Virginia, did not do so for the purpose of creating a new state. They donated the land exclusively for the purpose of creating the Federal District.
After it went unused for public buildings or other major federal development, the portion donated by Virginia was retroceded back to the Commonwealth by Congress in 1846.
I believe this example of retrocession provides the answer to the constitutional conundrum today.
While the Constitution’s Article I Section 8 sets a maximum size for the seat of the Federal Government, it does not set a minimum. I have introduced a bill, the Compact Federal District Act, that would shrink the seat of government and retrocede the remainder of the current District of Columbia back to Maryland, giving its residents a vote for a U.S. Representative and two Senators.
This solution is the best available. It offers D.C. residents a voice in the Federal legislative branch, keeps faith with Maryland’s original cession of land for D.C., and works within the bounds of the Constitution.
The Compact Federal District Act also takes great care to make the retrocession and the transfer of administrative functions from D.C. to Maryland as smooth as possible. For anyone worried about the details of how retrocession would affect D.C. government and the daily lives of the District’s residents, I can give you the same assurance found in the old Prego television commercials: “It’s in there!”
The District of Columbia would retain the seat of the current non-voting Delegate until the next reapportionment as a full voting Member of Congress.
The bill solves the dilemma of the 23rd Amendment and D.C.’s three electoral votes.
Personnel and assets of the current D.C. National Guard would be transferred to the Maryland National Guard.
All pending criminal and civil cases would be transferred to Maryland courts. Aspects of the criminal justice system such as pretrial services, parole, probation, and the sex offender registry would be transferred to Maryland, too. Meanwhile, Maryland’s criminal and traffic laws would be applied to the newly reduced Federal District unless Congress provides otherwise.
The current D.C. government’s land holdings and contracts would go to Maryland. Federal obligations to D.C. residents, such as retirees and students in federally funded scholarship programs, would continue.
My bill covers the details that would need to be sorted out in the case of retrocession.
The Democrat D.C. statehood bill, by contrast, has gaps regarding how it would function as a state, and it does not adequately address the 23rd Amendment which already gave D.C. three electoral votes.
Republicans offered the Compact Federal District Act as the motion to recommit H.R. 51 with instructions, the last chance for the minority in the House of Representatives to amend the legislation. All but one Republican supported my bill, but all Democrats rejected it. The House subsequently passed H.R. 51 on a strict party line vote.
D.C. statehood’s current prospects in the Senate look doubtful, so the issue will not likely fade anytime soon. I am committed to the Compact Federal District Act as a way to fairly and constitutionally ensure that D.C. residents enjoy representation in Congress.
The writer represents the Fifth Congressional District in Virginia, which includes Martinsville and most of Henry and all of Patrick counties. The piece first was published in The Roanoke Times.