WASHINGTON — A House of Representatives voted Thursday to pass a bill that would grant D.C. statehood. The prospect, once a progressive dream, has become a mainstream policy goal in the Democratic party.
The bill will face a tough path in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority. With a new administration in office, many have been asking our Verify team about the general process behind becoming a state.
Our Verify team took a look.
QUESTION: How does a territory like D.C. become an official state?
- United States Constitution
- The National Constitution Center
- Robert Peck, Center For Constitutional Litigation
- Thomas Colby, law professor at The George Washington University Law School
- Justin Hansford, Law Professor at Howard University Law School
Explaining the road to statehood
What does the Constitution say about statehood?
The Constitution grants general state-creation powers to Congress in Article IV, Section 3, under what's called the admissions clause:
“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new state shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress," it reads.
This clause makes Congress responsible for all statehood admission decisions, although it mandates that existing states have the ability to approve of changes to their land.
The National Constitution Center elaborated more on the admissions clause, saying there were some limits to who could be admitted.
“This clause affords Congress the power to admit new states," they said. "Most of the discussion at the Constitutional Convention focused on the latter, limiting, portion of the clause— providing that new states can be carved out of or formed from existing states only with the consent of those existing states."
Before admission legislation, Congress has often signed what’s called an “enabling act”, according to our experts. These acts outline a path to statehood and set requirements like the formation of a state constitution.
The last state to officially join the U.S. was Hawaii, back in 1959. Here's what the timeline looked like:
- March 11, 1959 : Senate voted 75-15 in favor of the Admissions Act
- March 12, 1959: House approved as well 323-89
- March 18, 1959: President Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Hawaii Admissions Act”.
- June, 1959: Hawaiians voted to become a state “under terms specified in the Admissions Act" to accept the statehood bill.
- August 21, 1959: Hawaii officially became first state
Constitutional expert Robert Peck said there's also been some further clarification on what the clause can do, such as the "equal footing" doctrine.
"The short answer is that Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to admit new states," he said, "The equal footing doctrine, enunciated in a 1911 decision concerning Oklahoma’s statehood, provides that new states are admitted on an “equal footing” with the existing states."
Peck said that some have argued Article 1, Section 8 — which gives Congress plenary power over the district that serves as the nation’s capital — causes a conflict with statehood, "unless statehood is granted by constitutional amendment to the District."
Peck also said that some might find D.C. statehood more challenging as parts of the new state would not have power over areas that indisputably part of federal governance.
"In addition, Article IV, Section 3 states that no new state may be created out of the territory of an existing state without that state's permission," Peck continued. "For some, that means that portions that were once part of Maryland require that state’s permission. The better view, however, is that the ceding of territory to form the capital was complete, and this provision no longer governs the District."
Lastly, Peck said the 23rd Amendment would need to be considered. That amendment allows U.S. citizens residing in DC the ability to vote for presidential electors, whose vote goes toward the Electoral College for President and Vice President.
The 23rd Amendment gives the District three electoral votes in the race for president. If a new state is created and formed, and the federal territory as the "district" remains, that small section would get a huge amount of influence.
Thomas Colby, a law professor at The George Washington University Law School, said Congress would have to repeal that 23rd Amendment when they pass a statehood bill.
“If you do create a state out of DC, and you reduce the seat of government just to the buildings right around the mall, technically right at that moment, that new seat of government, those new buildings right around the mall get those three votes for the president," Colby said. "Which is not what anyone wants to have happen.”
Where does DC stand on statehood, and why does it matter?
D.C. has roughly 700,000 residents who currently pay federal taxes and who do not have equal voting representation. Proponents of the bill say statehood would help protect those residents.
D.C. becoming the 51st state would also mean the District would have two voting senators.
June 2020 marked the first time that either house of Congress had passed legislation that would allow D.C. to have full statehood and congressional representation, with the House passing the 232 to 180. On April 22, 2021, the House passed Eleanor Holmes Norton's Washington DC Admission Act, 216-208. It's the second time in history the House has passed historic statehood legislation, which still faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
The bill would shrink the federal government territory to a two-mile radius (dubbed the "National Capital Service Area" ) that would include the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court and other federal lawmaking buildings that would still stay under congressional control.
Critics of D.C. statehood argue that the framers of the Constitution never wanted the nation’s capital to be its own state. They say creating a new state would call for a constitutional amendment and that the new state -- with a proposed name of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth -- would have a disproportionate amount of influence over what the federal government can and can't do.
WATCH Monday's full DC Statehood hearing:
Why is statehood important if D.C. already has so much of its own authority?
While D.C. does have autonomy in certain aspects, like its own police force or its Council, it's still overseen by Congress.
There are four Congressional subcommittees, both chambers of Congress (House and Senate), four regular committees and the president who all can oversee the ins and outs of D.C.
It's Congress who can modify and review D.C.'s budget, and also overrule any law it doesn't like. Whoever is president appoints D.C. local judges, who then help run D.C.'s court system and even its jail.
"When the federal government shuts down because Congress can’t agree on a spending bill, the District is required to shut down as well," reads a budget explainer from DCVote."During those periods, basic local functions like education, trash collection, and permitting cannot be carried out."
So D.C. doesn't truly enjoy the same benefits a state would. Federal decisions that are often heard as "leaving it to the states" for enforcement don't apply the same way here in D.C.