the national interest

D.C. Statehood Is the Democrats’ Only Option

D.C.-statehood activists outside the Capitol Building on March 22. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

After losing to the Democrats in 2020, Republicans are working feverishly to win their next battle. Their efforts include no revision of their platform or message. Instead, the plan consists of enacting new restrictions on voting (from limits on early voting to forbidding volunteers from giving water to people waiting in line) and consolidating partisan control over election results. In Georgia, the party has stripped the secretary of state’s office of jurisdiction over elections, and in Arizona, it is trying to shift election authority from the Democratic secretary of state to the Republican attorney general. Their goal is not to avoid a repeat of the sort of crisis Donald Trump initiated but to win the next one.

The Democratic Party has made little use of the respite. Despite controlling Congress and the presidency, and making constant proclamations of the need to safeguard democracy, Democrats have failed to actually advance that objective. They have tentatively agreed on voting reforms, though none of them protect against the main threat of Republican state officials overturning election results. Worse, several Democratic senators quietly (and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema loudly) oppose removing the filibuster, making even modest reforms impossible to pass. There is no plan B. The most likely outcome is that Democrats take no action at all to protect democracy and simply hope they can win the next election by a coupproof margin.

There may not be any solution available to Congress that comprehensively prevents a stolen election. But there is a practical alternative that would at least make progress toward shoring up the system: granting statehood to Washington, D.C.

Republicans insist the only motive for D.C. statehood is to give Democrats two more senators. It isn’t. The maneuver advances the cause of democratization in two ways that, on their own, fully justify it. First, it would give three-quarters of a million Americans representation on equal standing with their fellow citizens. Second, it would partially redress the Senate’s significant underrepresentation of Black people. Since the Senate gives more weight to citizens of low-population states, and sparsely populated rural states are heavily white, the Senate functionally represents an ersatz version of an America whose demographics are far paler than its actual citizenry.

But the partisan implications are hardly negligible. Two additional Democratic senators may well stave off a crisis. In a world in which the January 6 rioters’ demands had been met, one member each of the House and Senate would have had to object to certifying the electoral votes in states where Trump claimed fraud. Then, the chambers would each vote to determine the true winner of that state’s electoral votes. If both chambers agreed, they would award the electoral votes to the candidate they considered the true winner.

This process for resolving disputes over the Electoral College, created by a poorly written 1887 law, is one of the weakest points in the rickety framework of our government. All that’s needed to initiate a challenge to the results of the presidential election in a state is for one member of the House and one member of the Senate to raise the question. The outcome can be overturned if both the House and Senate vote to do so. If Republicans control both chambers of Congress and decide to hand a state’s Electoral College votes to their party’s candidate, they can.

The system doesn’t have any nonpartisan officials with the power to overrule challenges to the election. The parties themselves control the system. The straightest shot at preventing an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party from subverting the next unfavorable election result is to prevent that party from gaining control of Congress. A Democratic Senate couldn’t ward off any threats to the election, but it would give Democrats far more leverage to defend the next election result.

The same dynamic could avert another slow-motion crisis that awaits Joe Biden. In 2016, the Republican Senate smashed precedent by refusing to consider any candidate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy — ostensibly because it came in the last year of Barack Obama’s term. In a recent interview, though, Mitch McConnell admitted (or, perhaps more accurately, boasted) that he would refuse to confirm a justice not only in 2024 but also in 2023. Should Republicans win the Senate, McConnell will impose the same judicial blockade he used on Obama.

The modern polarized system has created, in effect, a new Constitution with overwhelming advantages for Republicans. New laws require 60 votes, but existing programs can be defunded with 51. Judges, who can be appointed with a mere 51 votes, can strike down laws that required 60 to pass.

McConnell’s most recent addition to this obstacle course is to essentially decree that presidents can only fill a Supreme Court vacancy if their party controls the Senate. That chamber’s heavy Republican tilt — Republicans could hold a majority simply by winning every state that voted for Trump by a margin of six points or more — forces Democrats to overcome forbidding odds to scrape out even the barest Senate majority. Democratic senators represent 40 million more Americans than their Republican counterparts, but the Democratic Party has to reach deep into red America in order to cobble together a working government.

Before the end of the 20th century, filibusters were rare, the Senate’s rural skew made little partisan difference, and qualified Supreme Court nominees routinely sailed through confirmation. In the modern era, the Senate’s heavy overrepresentation of rural America combines with the routine use of the filibuster and increasingly partisan fights over court nominations to create something completely unlike what existed before: the McConnell Constitution.

One feature of the McConnell Constitution now on display is that Democratic majorities lack the ideological self-confidence of their Republican counterparts, even though they speak for a far larger share of the public. This restraint has hampered the party’s ability to defend the integrity of the system. Even though that system is being reshaped at the state level by Republicans acting entirely on a party-line basis, Manchin insists any election reform must gain bipartisan support.

And yet admitting new states has often been a raw partisan exercise. In 1845, Democrats added Texas over the Whigs’ objections. In 1889, Republicans brought in Montana and Washington and split the Dakota territory into two new states, while holding off statehood for other territories less certain to vote their way. Democrats could revive this tradition — and the filibuster needn’t be an obstacle.

Both parties have carved out exceptions to the filibuster for measures they value: Budget bills, executive-branch appointments, and judges can all be confirmed with 51 votes. If Democrats wish to bring D.C. into the union, all they need to do is tweak Senate rules to exempt statehood bills from the filibuster, then pass a bill to create a new Douglass Commonwealth.

When they make the case against D.C. statehood, Republicans in Congress cite things like its lack of mining and logging, its (imagined) lack of car dealerships, or its excessive corruption and crime. (The last point has been offered by Steve Scalise, who represents famously corrupt Louisiana.) Their purpose is not to ground the argument in principle but to quickly remove the discussion to partisanship. Republicans grasp the Democratic Party’s incapacitating fear of advancing its self-interest. This neurosis has no counterpart on the opposing side. Republican officials are carrying out anti-democratic reforms for nakedly partisan reasons; Democrats are afraid to advance pro-democratic reforms out of a fear that the partisan benefits they confer will taint them.

Democrats have no options that can fully inoculate against a coup. Nor do they have a path that can give them the cover of bipartisan support. They can remain paralyzed in the face of a mortal danger, or they can take the action that is available to them in the window before it disappears.

D.C. Statehood Is the Democrats’ Only Option