The US almost tore itself apart to get to 50 states. Can DC make it 51?

Part of Problem # 6 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Ten years ago, Washington, DC, was about to be truly represented in Congress. DC residents – who outnumber the population of both Wyoming and Vermont – had been able to vote in presidential elections since 1964, but on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, they still had no voting rights. Washington has one congressional representative, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can be a member of committees but is not allowed to vote.

The proposal was then: the non-voting DC delegate would be replaced by a full member of the House. In return, an additional seat would be created, which would have initially gone to a secure republican part of Utah, balancing the heavily democratic base of DC for voters. In many ways, the deal was a patch for the problem that residents actually wanted to solve.

DC has no voice in Congress because it is not a state and becoming one is a long political challenge: The last states joined the union 60 years ago, if that gives you an idea of ​​how impossible it is to add another one now.

The 2009 deal, which is said to have circumvented the state process, made it to the Senate but died in the house. Democrats objected to provisions annexed to the Senate law to undermine DC’s gun laws. But the Republicans weren’t too happy either – including Jason Chaffetz, who was then a Utah representative. He didn’t like the tradeoff, even if it meant more power to his state. “This whole thing seems like a political bribe to me,” Chaffetz complained. “If Washington, DC is appropriate representation, do it. … try not to dangle a carrot out there. “

This month, widespread protests over George Floyd’s death may have helped make that case nationwide. After President Trump sent federal troops from the National Guard to patrol DC, District Mayor Muriel Bowser seized the moment to remind Americans of the district’s diminished position.

“We are the capital, we are a federal district, we are 700,000 tax-paying Americans and I am the Mayor, Governor, and County Governor at the same time,” Bowser PBS told NewsHour this week. Since the long search for a state has not yet been fulfilled, she said, “the federal government could infringe on our autonomy,” including taking many criticized actions on DC soil this week.

Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks from a stage with supporters around her and the US Capitol dome in the background.

Mayor Muriel Bowser in Washington, DC speaks alongside military veteran Bernie Siler and DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) at a meeting in support of the state of DC on September 16, 2019. “We want everyone in this United States of America we know that like them, we pay taxes like they do, we send our people to war, ”said Bowser.
Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Efforts for the state of DC have been growing for quite some time: residents are driving around with license plates complaining of ‘tax without representation’. DC state accounts have been introduced in every congress since 1965. a stand-alone bill about the state received only one Republican vote in 1993, the only time the question was raised. Congress was held late last year first hearing on the state of DC in more than 25 years. But Chaffetz was not mistaken about the state of affairs.

Political bribery is what constitutes states with a few exceptions. When there is a desire to create a new state, Congress just has to vote for it. But like animals in Noah’s Ark, states have historically joined the union in pairs, with legislators using new states to maintain – or at least try to maintain – the balance of partisan power.

“It’s never been written down, but it’s no accident that you have states in pairs,” says historian Jonathan Earle of Louisiana State University.

A majority of the representatives are already co-sponsors of the bill that would make DC a state. In March 2019, the Chamber passed a resolution that the state endorses. Still, the reality was that the state for DC – or Puerto Rico, by the way – didn’t stand a chance. This moment can change the national public perception around it.

However, if the House passes a bill about a state, it will face a certain death in the Senate, where the Republican majority is adamant against adding a state where only 4 percent of voters supported Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats view DC state as a way to rebalance a Senate and an electoral college that have stunted progressive priorities, and that is why Republicans are against the idea. And public opinion is on their side. More than 60 percent of Americans are against the state for DC, according to a recent Gallup poll.

A comparable share support stands for Puerto Rico, according to the same poll. But history has shown that the creation of new states generally involves some form of power-sharing agreement. At the moment, the GOP has no reason to bless the creation of new states that would definitely dominate Democrats. “DC and Puerto Rico are likely both democratic states,” said Robert Pierce Forbes, a historian at Southern Connecticut State University. “It’s hard to see what you trade to even get one.”

Insisting on tit for tat is part of a long pattern in American politics. The most recent additions to the US, Alaska and Hawaii, were introduced almost simultaneously in 1959, because one was Democratic and the other Republican.

Admitting states in ways that preserve the partisan balance can sound cynical. The habit originated from something much uglier. During the first half of the 19th century, Southerners repeatedly blocked attempts to admit Northern Free States unless they got a new slave state in return.

A state was often compromised at the birth of a state, with the debate directly addressing the issue of the expansion of slavery or the struggle for race. Maintaining power has always been central to the equation.

Creating new states was not complicated

The Constitution is written to make it easy to achieve America’s deep-seated ambition to expand. But shortly after its founding, state battles turned into a battle involving the nation’s original sin of slavery.

What is known as the new states clause (Article IV, section III of the Constitution) gives Congress the power to create states with few restrictions. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 rejected the idea of ​​imposing a voting requirement beyond the simple majority normally required to pass the House and the Senate. Whenever there is political will to create a state, Congress is free to do so.

Typically, Congress first approves an act of authorization to enable residents to form a territorial government and propose a constitution. Later it adopts a law or resolution to allow an area as a state – almost always imposing conditions which include everything from voting rights, state political rules, language requirements and, in the case of Utah, a ban on polygamy.

This system worked during the early decades of the new United States – for settlers, if not for Native Americans, who forced or enslaved them across the country. Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi were all admitted shortly after the War of 1812, which, by removing the threats from the Native Americans and the creeks to the south, allowed both the white settlement of these areas and the bliss with which Congress was promoted , accelerated. acted to include them as states, ” writes historian Sean Wilentz.

The nation grew rapidly thanks to the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 (which is much of what we now call the Upper Midwest) and the Louisiana Purchase. That favorable 1803 deal with France brought in land that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, more than doubling the country. “If you had a bona fide amount of settlers, you could sign up to Congress,” said Earle. “It worked without a hitch until Missouri applied for state status in 1819.”

A portrait of Henry Clay and his wife around 1849.

Henry Clay, pictured with his wife Lucretia Hart Clay in 1849, made both the Missouri compromise and the 1850 compromise as a way of satisfying slave owners and abolitionists when new states entered the union.
Liljenquist Family collection via Library of Congress

In 1819, the Senate was divided equally between North and South, with senators from the 11 states that allowed slavery and an equal number of the 11 free states. Missouri threatened to expand slavery west of the Mississippi. The following year, home speaker Henry Clay made the Missouri compromise.

Missouri was to join the union as a slave state, but admission was accompanied by that of the free state of Maine, which had been part of Massachusetts until then. In addition, slavery was prohibited in all new states north of 36 ° 30 ′ north latitude, a line extending from the Missouri border to the south.

“When that was proposed, it was considered a shocking transaction,” said Forbes, author of The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Significance of America. “There was a huge backlash in Maine. There was a famous comment by a legislator that his voters would rather wait a thousand years for the state than take it on the condition that they bring in a slave state. ”

Southerners were also not happy with the arrangement. Until then, they had successfully blocked any attempt by Congress to regulate slavery in the states. They acknowledged that any restrictions included their possible abolition. An older Thomas Jefferson saw that a “geographic line, which coincides with a clear principle,” would forever be an annoyance. “This momentous question, like a fire clock at night, woke up and filled me with fear,” said Jefferson wrote. “I immediately considered it the dent of the Union.”

Statehood was a central front in the struggle for slavery

If the idea of ​​linking free states to slave states was shocking at first, it quickly became the norm. Because of the southern fear of being outnumbered in the Senate, Michigan had to wait for Arkansas to enter in the 1830s. In its 1844 platform, the Democratic Party linked the entry of the vast slave republic of Texas to the organization of Oregon territory.

“Since control of the Senate, and more generally the federal government, was vital to the preservation of the slave system, any change in the balance of free and slave states posed an existential threat to one side or the other,” says Joshua B, historian of Queens College Freeman.

The problem remained a tinder-box. After the Gold Rush, California was overrun with settlers and quickly admitted to the union without first spending time as territory. Admitting California required the compromise of 1850, a “comprehensive scheme“That had been glued together again by Henry Clay.

The slave trade was abolished in DC, but to appease those who favored slavery, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah officially became territories without reference, leaving demand for settlers. Moreover, it is relentless Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it clear that African Americans were still legally considered property even after escaping to free states. Free Soil Party co-founder and future Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase, said ahead of time, “The issue of slavery in the areas has been avoided. It is not arranged. ‘

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a last attempt to maintain sectional balance by organizing two new areas, divided north and south. But its passage only caused disagreement and led to the formation of the republican party against slavery, with Abraham Lincoln to declare, “The spirit of ’76 and the spirit of Nebraska are utterly opposite.” The “Bleeding Kansas” border war about whether the area would become a slave state became an immediate precursor to the civil war.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln circa 1860.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraksa Act of 1854 led to the formation of the Republican Anti-Slavery Party, of which Abraham Lincoln was a member.
Corbis via Getty Images

Due to the southern partition, the region was no longer represented in Congress, among other things. The Lincoln Party took full advantage and admitted Nevada as a state in 1864 and approved new areas of the north: Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas.

In 1889 and 1890, Republicans strengthened their power and gave in as Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming states, splitting Dakota territory into two states. Areas with significant populations thought of as less of a lock for the GOP – Arizona, New Mexico, Utah – had to wait.

“State admission was explicitly used by Republicans who dominated Congress and wanted to maintain their position as a partisan instrument,” said Eric Biber, a Berkeley law professor. “Republicans pushed through a number of states to improve their position in the Senate and the Electoral College.”

The rest of the continental US was admitted to the state by the early 20th century, except DC. Long debates about the district’s unique constitutional status – and the southern opposition to black voters who granted voting rights – kept residents waiting. And to admit the 49th and 50th states, a new deal had to be made to keep both parties on board.

Alaska is no longer being ignored, while some have considered Hawaii a threat

When Trump came up with the idea of ​​buying Greenland this summer, part of his motivation was to acquire a legacy similar to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cemented with its admission of Alaska as a state, according to the Wall Street Journal. The problem with that idea – okay, one of the problems with that idea – is that Eisenhower never wanted to admit Alaska.

The Democratic Party started promoting the idea of ​​a state for Alaska and Hawaii as early as 1916. By the 1950s, the polls received overwhelming approval, leading the GOP to endorse state status as part of the 1952 party platform.

Eisenhower, who was elected President as Republican that year, was unconvinced. He was afraid that Alaska was a “tin cup stands“Forever dependent on the federal government for support. “The area was so vast, so uninhabited, so distant from the rest of the nation that it seemed barely worth considering,” he said. Eisenhower biographer Jim Newton.

A photograph from 1958 with a very large American flag against a building and men on a ladder pinning an extra star in the star field. Several people hang over the eaves of the building to watch.

Alaskans pinned the 49th star on the American flag to celebrate their state’s acceptance into the union on July 1, 1958.
Dmitri Kessel / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Conservatives were concerned that Hawaii would be dominated by the West Coast union, which they considered communist. (A oath of loyalty for government officials was a precondition for Hawaii’s empowering act.) Southern Democrats disapproved of the islands’ non-white population for worrying that Hawaii would send senators of Asian descent who would represent two more votes against filibuster rules that helped them to violate civil rights laws.

“If Hawaii were established and populated mainly by mainland Americans, it wouldn’t be a big deal to admit it as a state,” said Nebraska Republican Senator Hugh Butler at the time. “Unfortunately that is not the case.” (Butler bluntly demonstrates his racist beliefs also said he didn’t want two lawmakers of Japanese descent in the Senate.)

Given the overwhelming public support for admission, Eisenhower finally decided that a promise was a promise. Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Democratic leader of the Senate, dropped his opposition to admitting Hawaii as part of his broader switch to civil rights laws.

Leaders from both sides came to believe it was a fair deal everywhere, especially since Alaska was democratic at the time and Hawaii was republican. “The expectation that Alaska will forever be a democratic state – how foolish we all are when we make these projections,” said Gerald McBeath, emeritus political scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Without anything for the GOP, Puerto Rico and DC have to wait

In recent decades, the state has been largely a backbone problem. Most of the current areas are too small to be considered seriously.

For DC and Puerto Rico, as has been the case with the arguments of the state for 200 years, the question remains what is on the other side. And race remains a factor, albeit less overtly than in the past: In the 60s, the chairman of the House committee who checked DC’s wallet on a budget from the city’s first black mayor, responded by sending a truck of watermelons. Amid George Floyd’s protests this month, current mayor Bowser unveiled a message for President Trump on the streets of the city: she renamed the White House square into ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’ and decorated a passageway visible from the executive mansion with a huge, bright yellow mural that reads ‘Black Lives Matter’.

Puerto Rico has held several referendums on the state, with divisions in public opinion. Statehood can help with the territory financial problems, while it is likely to be more difficult to ignore after natural disasters (or for FEMA officials too commit fraud). Still, there are concerns that a state would increase the tax burden on residents and businesses and make it more difficult to maintain Spanish as the dominant language.

In 2017, 97 percent of participants were in one Puerto Rico referendum privileged state. However, the turnout was less than 25 percent, as the pro-territorial status quo Popular Democratic Party boycotted the vote.

In DC, opinion about the state is less mixed. A referendum on the state received support from 78 percent of voters in 2016. Bowser sees the lack of representation as nothing less than the “denial of our fundamental rights as American citizens” by residents, the majority of whom are colored people, in the “capital of the free world”.

The biggest hurdle then, as now, is the fact that DC is predominantly democratic.

In March 2019, the House approved HR 1, a comprehensive bill for election reform, including an endorsement from Washington State. But Mitch McConnell, a leader of the Senate majority, does called the package ‘a terrible proposal’ that ‘does not get speaking time in the Senate’.

If the issue of DC or Puerto Rican state in Congress were ever to be resolved politically, it would be easy to admit both of them, says Biber, the Berkeley law professor. However, for that to happen without overcoming the democratic majority, there must be something big on the table for Republicans, and after all these years it is still not clear what that could be.

Alan Greenblatt is a writer who deals with politics and policy issues. He was a reporter for Governing, NPR and CQ.

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