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National Opinion: DC statehood could backfire on Senate Democrats

National Opinion: DC statehood could backfire on Senate Democrats

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

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 D.C. statehood even if, as Sen. Joe Manchin has suggested, the rule is tweaked so that a senator actually has to keep talking. The prospect of D.C. statehood would certainly motivate Republicans to new levels of verbal stamina.

That means that for D.C. 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 D.C. 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 .

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 D.C. residents — nearly half of them Black — who currently can’t vote in 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.

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.

But when it comes to D.C., Democrats are prepared to embrace the undemocratic 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’ lopsided advantage in the Senate, where the 50 Republicans represent some 40 million fewer people than the 50 Democrats do.

So, yes, killing the filibuster would make the undemocratic Senate slightly less undemocratic. 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 Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.”

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