Washington, D.C. Explained
Is Washington, D.C. a state? The short answer is no. Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States. It is better described as a city, and a unique one at that.
Despite being capital of the same country whose citizens once rose up in arms against an empire, demanding “no taxation without representation,” residents of Washington, D.C. don’t actually receive the same political representation as the rest of the country.
Sure, Washington, D.C. has a local mayor, and a 13-member city council, but it is actually Congress that has authority over the city. They can even overturn city laws. Since 1961 and the passing of the 23rd Amendment, Washington, D.C. does receive three electoral votes in presidential elections. However, residents have no representation in the US Senate, and only can elect a non-voting congressional delegate to the House of Representatives.
Today, the city has adopted the unofficial motto, Taxation Without Representation, which can be found on some D.C. vehicle license plates.
If you’re wondering exactly why this is, we have to go back to the US Constitution and the early years of the United States.
Washington, D.C Was Not Always the Capital of the USA
Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Washington, D.C. was not always the capital of the United States. Prior to 1800, various cities served as capital, including New York, where George Washington first took office, and Philadelphia.
On July 9, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which approved the creation of a national capital on the Potomac River. In 1800, the seat of government was finally moved to the newly constructed city.
The Reason D.C Is Not a State
The reason that Washington, D.C. is not considered a state is in the Constitution itself. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 states that Congress has the power to exercise exclusive legislation over the district in which its government resides. This applies to a 10-mile square radius. James Madison wrote about this in 1788, discussing in detail the how the Federal government should have legislative authority over the capital, feeling this would be in the best interest of city maintenance and safety.
Furthermore, many of the Founding Fathers believed that the capital should be free from political pressure. They were worried that if their capital were to become a state, it could create strange power dynamics between the Federal and State governments. The Founders did not want to feel indebted or beholden to any sort of state legislature.
Unfortunately, due to this, when the capital eventually moved to D.C., all the residents living there were stripped of voter representation within the electoral college and Congress. They also had no say in any Constitutional Amendments and no right to home rule. Though they have since gained more representation (notably the 23rd Amendment), residents of Washington, D.C. still have less voting rights than the rest of America. And despite this, they still have to pay all Federal taxes.
Will Washington, D.C. Ever Become a State?
While the US Constitution clearly outlines the status of Washington, D.C., there have been grassroots campaigns, since the beginning, which have sought to increase voting rights in the city.
More recently, residents of D.C. overwhelmingly voted in favor of statehood in a 2016 referendum, with some 79% of voters supporting the creation of America’s 51st state. To be clear, there is still a very long way to go for Washington, D.C. statehood to become a reality, but the idea does have the backing of many, especially those living in the D.C. area.
So is Washington, D.C. a state? Currently, no. But it could be some day.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.