Ian Churchill, University of Maryland
Taxation Without Representation. In Eighteenth Century America, this notion was deemed so intolerable that it eventually sparked a revolution. However, there are still Americans who are taxed without representation in the Twenty-First Century: the citizens of Washington, DC. Nearly seven hundred thousand people live in the District but have no representation in Congress except for one non-voting delegate, and no representation whatsoever in the Senate.
A movement to admit DC as the State of New Columbia has been gaining momentum, and a city-wide referendum in support of statehood on Election Day in November 2016 was approved overwhelmingly by city residents. This bid could be described as quixotic at best, as it is exceedingly unlikely that Congress will approve the creation of a fifty-first state that is just a fraction of the size of Rhode Island. The people of Washington can still be represented though, if they abandon the dream of New Columbia and instead pursue retrocession into the State of Maryland.
While today the City of Washington and the District of Columbia are coterminous, they were actually separate entities until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Following the end of the Revolution, Maryland and Virginia donated land along the Potomac River to be used for a capital city for the new nation. The land south of the Potomac, which remained undeveloped in its fifty years as part of the District, was returned,or retroceded, to Virginia in 1846.
When Washington was first planned by Pierre L’Enfant in the 1790s, the city itself encompassed a very small portion of the hundred square miles land in the District. This was intentional, as the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that the Federal government would be free of undue influence from any state that hosted it. Thus, Washington County, the farmland of the District that surrounded Washington City, acted as a buffer zone to ensure the independence of the Federal government.
However, this buffer zone has become obsolete in the two centuries since the District was created. First, the modern Federal government is far more powerful in relation to the States than it was in the early days of our nation’s history. Events such as the Nullification Crisis, Civil War, and New Deal have all increased the power of the Federal government to the point that it is inconceivable that a state government could overpower Congress.
Additionally, in the years after the Civil War, the unincorporated land surrounding the City of Washington has been settled and developed, and hundreds of thousands of people now live in space that was previously occupied by trees and cows. Essentially, the buffer zone envisioned by the Founding Fathers no longer exists, nor would it be necessary if it did.
While many residents of the District have their hearts set on becoming an independent state, this proposal has an infinitesimally small chance of ever coming to fruition. The District was created by the Constitution itself to serve as a Federal city, and an Amendment would be necessary in order to even begin the process of statehood.
Furthermore, the political makeup of the District is another barrier to statehood; the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and it is highly unlikely that red states would support the addition of two more Democrats to the Senate. Full statehood for DC is a noble cause, but supporters are wasting their time unless they are willing to pursue a compromise.
The multitudes of people that live in the District are Citizens of the US, yet they do not enjoy all of the rights held so dearly by the residents of the States. Since 1961, the District has been allotted three electoral votes in Presidential elections, yet the people of Washington have no representation in Congress except for a single non-voting delegate. In order to rectify this injustice, the District should be retroceded to the State of Maryland; the District’s Delegate would then become a Representative, and Maryland’s Senators would represent the people of Washington, MD, as well as the rest of the state. While this would solve the issue of Washingtonians being taxed without representation, retrocession to Maryland is unpopular in both the District and in Maryland itself. Despite its unpopularity, this measure would prove to be exceptionally beneficial for the people of both polities.
Were retrocession to happen, and the District of Columbia become part of Maryland, the city would enjoy a degree of autonomy that it has never experienced. Currently, the laws of the District are subject to approval by Congress; Republicans that would never be elected in the city have power over its legislation. Were the city to be returned to Maryland, the city would be under the jurisdiction of the state government in Annapolis, which is much more in line with the views of Washingtonians than the Federal government. While the law of Maryland would still supersede any laws passed in Washington, the city would still have much more leeway to govern itself than under the control of Congress.
While the benefits of retrocession are mostly political to the residents of the District, the potential economic benefits make this proposal attractive to Maryland as well. First off, the increase in the tax base would be significant, as nearly seven hundred thousand new Marylanders would be contributing to the state’s coffers. In addition, the tourism revenue generated in the City of Washington would be a huge boost to the state’s economy.
However, the most significant benefit of retrocession would be the ability of the State to connect the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area into a single megalopolis. In recent years, the economy of Washington has surged as Baltimore’s has flagged, but state-sponsored cooperation between the two cities would bring economic prosperity to both of them, as well as the surrounding areas. Although they are thirty miles apart, high-speed railways could cut the commute between Baltimore and Washington to fifteen minutes. Construction of this line would be an undertaking of massive proportions; putting the project under the control of a single state government would undoubtedly streamline the process. The Washington metropolitan area is infamous for its abysmal traffic, so slashing the travel time between the two cities could make living in Baltimore a preferable alternative for commuters than the outer Washington suburbs. The economic benefit that would result from such a connection would be incalculable, for the cities and for the State of Maryland as a whole.
While the retrocession of the District of Columbia to Maryland is a longshot at best, the issue simply has not been considered or discussed at any length. The disenfranchisement of the people of Washington is a serious problem that contradicts the principles on which this country was founded, yet the proposal supported by an overwhelming majority of Washingtonians is simply not viable. This issue could be resolved, to the benefit of all involved, if the city was retroceded and organized as District County, Maryland.