Last week, Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz reintroduced the the centuries-old idea of returning the vast majority of DC to Maryland. While the consensus is largely that Chaffetz is meddling in District affairs, some residents might actually go for the idea. Let’s take a look at how retrocession would work and at some of the potential side effects.
If retrocession actually happened, a small area of DC—the Supreme Court, Capitol, White House, and Mall—would remain a federal district under the exclusive authority of Congress. The rest of DC would become a city within the state of Maryland.
At first glance, retrocession seems like a reasonable compromise between the status quo and full DC statehood. Retrocession would grant District residents congressional representation without disrupting the balance of power in the House or Senate and would free the District from congressional authority over local affairs.
And yet DC’s non-voting congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and her Democratic colleagues from Maryland and Virginia basically laughed Chaffetz’s plan down and quickly rejected the proposal as “frivolous.”
With retrocession, DC and its Democratic allies would permanently sacrifice the substantial power and clout that full statehood offers while Marylanders would invite a sizable political shakeup by adding a deeply blue city to their somewhat purple state. Also, while Washingtonians would gain true representation in both Congress and the Maryland state legislature, and would maintain a local government, the dream of true DC home rule would die with retrocession.
Living in the Federal City can be frustrating
It is a frustrating time to live in the District. Donald Trump received only four percent of the DC vote in the 2016 election. And yet with his victory and continued Republican control of the House and Senate, Republicans have renewed grand plans to tamper with local Washington affairs. Local decisions regarding assisted suicide, abortion funding, recreational marijuana use, gun control, and immigration are all being threatened by various Republican senators and house members.
This, of course, is not a new story. Residents of the nation’s capital have been subject to congressional control and oversight since its establishment in 1790. And since the Organic Act of 1801, DC residents have lacked full representation in the federal government.
Washingtonians gained presidential voting rights through the 23rd Amendment in 1960 and a democratically elected mayor and city council through the 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act. But Washingtonians still lack congressional representation and Congress retains ultimate authority over DC.
Retrocession could mean more taxes and less local spending for DC residents
Retrocession would finally put an end to congressional meddling. Current residents of Washington would no longer fall under congressional jurisdiction any more than any other city or town in the US. Most of what is now DC would become a municipality within Maryland, subject to all Maryland state laws. District residents would regain full congressional representation as residents of Maryland. Maryland would likely gain one congressional seat and vote in the Electoral College with the addition of DC’s population.
But retrocession has significant downsides. One major challenge would be taxes. District residents would suddenly find themselves responsible for Maryland state taxes. Maryland has a 6% state sales tax, while DC has a 5.75% sales tax. Under retrocession, DC would either have to impose a significant, regressive tax increase on its citizens or forego a major source of revenue for its local budget and hope that Maryland contributions made up for the difference.
Similarly, both DC and Maryland have substantial income taxes. Once again, DC would face two unsavory choices under retrocession. It could retain its local income tax as is, thus subjecting its residents to a substantial tax increase. Alternatively, DC could reduce its local income tax rates and hope that the revenue hit to its budget would be made up by Maryland state contributions.
But this hope would likely be in vain. While inequality is a major challenge in DC, it is a wealthy city. Wealthy cities around the country – New York, Seattle, Boston, etc – tend to send more money to their respective state capitals than they receive in return. Take New York City, which represents over 40% of the population of the State of New York. New York City sends billions of dollars more to Albany than it receives in state spending or contributions to its budget. In return, Albany blocks local legislation like congestion pricing and speed cameras, and exerts tremendous control over education, affordable housing, and how NYC taxes itself.
DC becoming part of Maryland would mean some real political headaches
This leads us to another risk that Washingtonians and Marylanders alike face with retrocession. Maryland is more in line with DC politically than upstate New York is to New York City, but Maryland and DC would inevitably find themselves at odds with one another on a number of frustratingly local issues (housing, commuter taxes, transportation projects, immigration protections, etc.). DC would more often than not be on the losing end of policy disagreements. In the US, cities are creatures of the state and are subject to tremendous state controls.
Furthermore, the addition of DC would imply an unwelcome lurch to the left in state politics for many Marylanders. While the balance of power in the federal government would be mostly unchanged by retrocession, the same cannot be said of the balance of power in Annapolis.
Governor Hogan won by only approximately 65,000 votes in 2014, and Republican Marylanders are unlikely to be thrilled with the idea of a reliably Democratic city of 680,000 (and growing) joining their state. In fact, recent polls show that retrocession’s unpopularity goes beyond Republicans in Maryland. According to an April 2016 poll, only 28% of Marylanders support annexing DC, while 44% are opposed. Dated polls of District residents show a similar level of enthusiasm for the idea.
Finally, there is the issue of what to do about DC’s three electoral votes. DC was granted its electoral votes via the 23rd amendment. If all but a small portion of DC is returned to Maryland, then what happens to those three votes?
According to the 23rd amendment, the decision is up to Congress. But the practical impact is that Democrats would risk losing at least two reliably blue votes for the Electoral College. DC’s current plan for statehood presents a similar question about what to do with the three electoral votes of any new, depopulated, federal district. But a crucial difference between statehood and retrocession is that, with statehood, DC would retain its own electoral votes and would not see its own influence diminish.
Retrocession is politically impractical. DC residents would likely have their taxes increase and their municipal budget squeezed all while sacrificing the dream of true home rule outside of the confines of Congress or Annapolis. Marylanders do not want DC. Democrats would lose reliably blue votes in the Electoral College and would foreclose a tempting possibility of eventually creating two solidly blue Senate seats.
While it is perhaps not fair to label retrocession a “frivolous” idea for restoring congressional representation for District residents, you can understand the laughter.