the national interest

Steve Scalise’s Ignorant, Racist Case Against D.C. Statehood

Graphic: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The District of Columbia spent years struggling to get out from under the thumb of Congress and achieve some measure of political autonomy for its residents. The first step in this process was wresting control of the city’s budget from Congress and turning it over to its mayor and city council in the 1990s. The current struggle is to give its citizens statehood. The through-line of this history is that conservative white Southerners in Congress insist that the city’s heavily Black population is unfit for self-governance.

The most recent iteration comes in a memo circulated by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, first reported by Andrew Solender. On the surface, Scalise is following the usual pattern of anti-statehood arguments, which consist of devising some distinction between D.C. and other small states, either real (D.C. can’t be a state because it lacks a mine) or imagined (D.C. supposedly lacks a car dealership), and then insisting arbitrarily that a real state must possess this feature.

Scalise offers three novel rationales to deny D.C. statehood. All of them rely on the supposition that its government is too incompetent to deserve statehood. First, he argues, D.C.’s budget is in chronic deficit:

If you click on the link supposedly showing D.C.’s inability to balance its budget, it goes to a 17-year-old report. That’s because the District’s budget is actually in superb shape. The city government amassed a huge budget surplus exceeding half a billion dollars in fiscal year 2020, allowing it to easily ride out the downturn that accompanied the coronavirus.

Scalise citing the congressional prohibition of commuter taxes as a reason D.C. can’t balance its budget — aside from being factually wrong, given that D.C. has balanced its budget — is especially perverse. Congress was only able to enact that prohibition because D.C. is not a state. If the lack of a commuter tax is what prevents D.C. from balancing its budget, then statehood is the solution. Scalise’s reasoning, such as it is, is utterly backward.

Next, Scalise argues that D.C. is undeserving of statehood because it has too much crime:

Yes, crime is up in D.C., as it is in many places. By the same token, crime is well below its low level in the 1990s.

In any case, it is unclear what the murder rate has to do with the case for statehood. The suggestion that granting statehood would somehow worsen the crime problem is a suggestion too preposterous even for Scalise. In any case, if high levels of homicide were a disqualification for statehood, Congress should seriously consider selling Scalise’s home state of Louisiana, the most murderous state in the union, back to France.

Finally, and most absurdly, Scalise argues that the District is too corrupt for statehood:

This “argument” suffers from the same disqualifications as his previous crime-based argument. One, there’s no reason to think becoming a state would make the problem any worse. And two, it is extraordinarily rich, given that Scalise hails from perhaps the most notoriously corrupt state in the country, a fact of life widely acknowledged within the state. Former U.S. representative Billy Tauzin used to say, “Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” Even a columnist from the New Orleans Advocate once bemoaned the state as being the country’s most corrupt.

Scalise’s evidence leans heavily on the record of former mayor Marion Barry, who was indeed corrupt — like many public officials, especially the ones in Louisiana — but left office more than two decades ago and has been dead for more than half a dozen years.

The “arguments” here are not some random talk-show host’s ranting, but the official talking points of a party leader in Congress. The all-but-explicit subtext is that the District of Columbia’s people do not deserve equal representation because too many of them are Black, and Black people can’t handle self-governance.

Steve Scalise’s Ignorant, Racist Case Against D.C. Statehood