House Democrats are poised to vote for Washington, D.C., statehood. As in the past, the proposal is being met with total Republican opposition. What’s different this time is that a growing number of Democrats aren’t ready to accept the Republican “no” as final. If Senate Democrats kill the filibuster, the party could admit D.C. as a state and thus seat two new, presumably Democratic senators.
The filibuster lets Republicans block District of Columbia statehood even if, as Sen. Joe Manchin has suggested, the rule is tweaked so that a senator actually has to keep talking — like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The prospect of D.C. statehood would certainly motivate Republicans to new levels of verbal stamina.
That means that for the federal capital to become a state, either Manchin would have to drop his opposition to eliminating the filibuster entirely, or Democrats would have to pick up more seats in 2022. Say one of those things happened, and the capital became a state. What’s to stop Republicans from seeking to add Senate seats when they return to power — for example, by sub-dividing solidly red states?
If it sounds crazy, it shouldn’t. The admission of new states has a turbulent history in the U.S.
In the decades before the Civil War, it was the recurrent political manifestation of the struggle over slavery. In the antebellum era, the admission of new states constantly threatened to disrupt the balance of the Senate — and hence the balance between free and slave states. For more than a generation in that era, the “answer” was to perpetuate compromise by admitting states in pairs, one slave and one free.
The point of remembering this historical background is not that the U.S. is now on the verge of civil war or anything like it. But the prospect of a new state shows you how the filibuster isn’t just any Senate rule: It’s a quasi-constitutional feature of the U.S. government. Eliminating it would change the rules of the system in far-reaching ways.
The argument for D.C. statehood has two different faces, each important. On the one hand, it is a moral argument for the equal suffrage of nearly 700,000 residents of the city — nearly half of them Black — who currently can’t vote in meaningful congressional elections.
On the other, it is also a partisan effort designed to give Democrats two more Senate seats. Under the Constitution, every new state gets two senators, regardless of the state’s size. By population, D.C. would be the smallest state and one of the least populous — bigger than Wyoming and Vermont, smaller than Alaska and South Dakota. But it would automatically get two senators, just like California (with around 40 million people) and Texas (nearly 30 million).
Democrats are ordinarily quick to point out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Senate, which demolishes the principle of one-person-one-vote — and has since Day One. James Madison left the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia deeply disheartened by the way the small states had refused to budge when confronted with the undemocratic nature of their demand to be treated the same as large states.
But when it comes to the District of Columbia, Democrats are prepared to embrace the direct democracy idea that 700,000 people should get two senators — there is no prospect of changing the two senators rule. The partisan rationale might be cloaked in the moral argument for equal voting rights for D.C. residents. The political reality, however, is that Democrats are frustrated with Republicans’ advantage in the Senate, where the 50 Republicans represent some 40 million fewer people than the 50 Democrats do. D.C. statehood is supposed to fight fire with fire.
So, yes, killing the filibuster would make the Senate slightly more directly democratic. On the other hand, using the opportunity to add another state on a straight partisan vote would invite more extreme polarization, not less.
The result wouldn’t be civil war. But the stakes are higher than congressional representation for 700,000 people
Noah Feldman is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
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