Last month I wrote about the national petition drive spearheaded by unhappy Republicans to have their various states secede from the Union.
That effort didn’t get very far.
Now this week comes news of an attempt to do the opposite — add a state to the Union.
It won’t get very far either — but it raises some interesting political and historical issues. It also has a small but telling connection to the revived national debate over guns.
On Wednesday, retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill which would allow voters in the District of Columbia to “endorse” becoming the 51st state, to be called New Columbia. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) signed on as co-sponsors.
In 1964, the District was granted three electoral votes in presidential elections, but it has no senators and its one delegate to the U.S. House cannot vote on bills. D.C. was allowed to form an elected local government in 1973, but Congress retains the right to review and overturn any laws it passes. District residents have long and justly claimed they are subject to “taxation without representation,” a slogan commonly seen on bumper stickers there.
Lieberman thinks they deserve better.
“It is long past time to give those American citizens who have chosen the District of Columbia as their home the voice they deserve in our democracy,” he said in filing his bill. “The United States is the only democracy in the world that denies voting representation to the people who live in its capital city.... (S)ecuring full voting rights for the 600,000 disenfranchised people who live in the District is unfinished business, not just for me, but for the United States of America.”
Lieberman has tried to help the District before. In 2009, he introduced a bill to give the District’s House delegate the right to vote. The measure sailed through the Senate 61-37, but then-Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) tacked on an amendment requiring the removal of almost all of the district’s gun-control rules. House Democrats couldn’t support that and the bill died.
As for full statehood, some say the District is too tiny to be a state, with a land area of only 69 square miles. The proposed state would be even smaller because, under the Lieberman bill, the Capitol, federal monuments, and other areas occupied by government buildings, would remain under federal control. In comparison, Rhode Island, now the smallest state, has a land area of just over 1,200 square miles.
On the other hand, the District population is about 618,000 — more than Wyoming, and only slightly fewer than North Dakota and Alaska.
And, hey, Liechtenstein has only 61 square miles and 36,000 people and it’s a country.
But the real problem with District statehood is not about size or population. It’s about political power. The District is overwhelmingly Democratic; President Obama took 91 percent of the vote in November. Republicans have no interest in adding two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Their 2012 national platform was clear: “We oppose statehood for the District of Columbia.”
One counter-proposal would have the District incorporated into Maryland. The District was originally created from land ceded by Maryland and Virginia, but Virginia took its land back in 1846. Ernest Gans, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, made the case for rejoining the District to Maryland in a 2011 piece for the Washington Post, calling it a “no-brainer.” The idea hasn’t caught on.
Still, politicians are always up for a deal (the fiscal cliff debacle to the contrary) and one possible compromise was given new life last month.
On Nov. 6, in a non-binding referendum, 61 percent of voters in Puerto Rico said they supported having Puerto Rico become a state. What makes that intriguing is that the 2012 Republican Platform also declared: “We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.”
I have no idea why Republicans are so high on statehood for Puerto Rico. Perhaps they see it as a way to mend fences with Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Whatever the reason, the platform plank suggests they’d be willing to discuss a package deal involving D.C. — similar to the Missouri Compromise that brought in Maine and Missouri in 1820, and the agreement that brought in Alaska and Hawaii in 1959.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans sees an opportunity. “We ought to form a strategy with (Puerto Rico),” he told the Washington Times. “You can’t predict how these things are going to work, but it gives political cover for what everyone wants.” He talked to Puerto Rican delegates at the Democratic National Convention and “they were intrigued by the idea as well.”
Lieberman’s statehood bill has no chance of passage in this session of Congress.
Still, we may someday see more than 50 stars on the flag — whether by the addition of places like D.C. and Puerto Rico, or through the splitting of existing states like Texas and California.
Both have happened before and either could happen again.
Rich Lewis’ email address is email@example.com