Morgan Griffith: Retrocession, not statehood, for D.C.
The U.S. House of Representatives will soon vote on statehood for the District of Columbia. Proponents have offered many reasons in support of the cause, some of these arguments having stronger justification than others, but they have yet to satisfactorily address what I believe to be the greatest counterargument against D.C. statehood: the Constitution of the United States.
Among the powers granted to Congress by Article I Section 8 is “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
The purpose of this clause was wise. In a federal union, allowing one state to contain the seat of government would create the potential for that state to dominate it. James Madison wrote in The Federalist that “a dependence of the members of the general government on the State . . . might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to” other states.
Madison had been a member of the Continental Congress in 1783 when it had fled Philadelphia after Pennsylvania’s state government refused to defend it from mutinous soldiers. That episode weighed on the minds of the Framers.
A 2020 Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by lawyers David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey noted that the late Robert F. Kennedy, a bust of whom now resides in Joe Biden’s Oval Office, understood well the reasoning of the Founding Fathers. “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,” then-Attorney General Kennedy wrote in the 1960s.
A famous compromise over dinner between rivals Alexander Hamilton on one side and Thomas Jefferson and Madison on the other led to the creation of Washington, D.C. along the Potomac River, and Maryland and Virginia each ceded land for the purpose. Ultimately, the land west of the Potomac was returned to Virginia in 1846.
Further affirming the District of Columbia’s distinct status was the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, giving it votes for president and vice president in the Electoral College.
Any measure giving the District statehood would need to go through the process of amending the Constitution. H.R. 51, the statehood bill the House will consider, does not do so. Instead, it shrinks the seat of the U.S. government to an area around the Mall, the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and other federal buildings, and admits the rest of the District as a state.
This approach suffers from an additional flaw beyond its constitutionality. The 23rd Amendment grants electoral votes to the “seat of Government of the United States,” not the District of Columbia specifically, meaning that the handful of residents in this area, presumably including the president and his family, would have as much weight in the Electoral College as some states.
Giving the residents of the District of Columbia a voice in the Federal Government is a worthy goal, but it must be done constitutionally. I have introduced a bill that meets this standard.
H.R. 2614, the Compact Federal District Act, recognizes the right of D.C. residents to be represented in Congress by returning most of the District to Maryland. Residents could then vote for a U.S. Representative and Senators from Maryland.
Maryland would gain by the transaction. It would pick up a U.S. Representative and thus more political clout. The District has enjoyed solid economic growth in the 21st century, and Maryland could expect to benefit from this trend. Further, the District and its Maryland suburbs share similar voting patterns, and the bill provides for a smooth transition of administration, minimizing any political upheaval.
A smaller seat of the Federal Government would remain, preventing it from falling within Maryland and potentially being dependent on that state. Its residents would be required to vote by absentee ballot, however, removing their outsized representation in the Electoral College that would otherwise be created by the 23rd Amendment.
I believe this solution fairly addresses the desire to grant D.C. residents voting representation in the Federal Government while respecting our oath to uphold the Constitution. If these are the goals of the House Democrat majority, I would welcome their support for the Compact Federal District Act. If House Democrats continue to pursue H.R. 51, they indicate that the Constitution and fair representation are subservient to their political goals, and they will have my opposition.
You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.
Morgan Griffith represents Virginia’s Ninth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.