Social media and local blogs exploded last week when Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz said he was "exploring" returning a portion of DC to the state of Maryland. Some GGWash contributors like the idea of more consolidated regional planning as well as real congressional representation for the District, but others aren't so into the thought of setting aside the dream of home rule in order to become a Maryland municipality.

Retrocession is an idea with historical precedent. Virginia ceded the land that today composes the City of Alexandria and Arlington County to the federal government to form the District in 1789. From pretty much day one, however, residents were unhappy about congressional interference in the local economy on issues ranging from infrastructure to banking to slavery.

As anti-slavery sentiment in particular picked up steam in the federal Congress, residents of the Virginia side of the District began campaigning for Richmond to take them back. In 1847, only 58 years after the establishment of the new capital city, Congress acquiesced to the lobbying of primarily Alexandria residents and retroceded the territory to Virginia. Sure enough, only three years later the Compromise of 1850 did abolish the slave trade in the District.

In the run-up to the Civil War, some key elements were in place on the Virginia side: a majority of voters wanted retrocession to happen and lobbied for it, and the Virginia General Assembly did the same.

Earlier this week, GGWash contributor Chad Hughes wrote about how things are different now than they were back then. He also flagged some other practical issues with retrocession, particularly that Maryland municipalities get most of their revenue from property taxes while DC's budget is dependent on sales and income taxes that would conflict with Maryland state taxes, a different that would mean either a huge tax hike or a major service cut for DC residents. Chad also noted that Maryland's Republican governor probably doesn't want over half a million new Democratic constituents any more than most DC residents want to be governed from Annapolis.

The comment section on Chad's post went wild, And over the contributor listserv, the people who write for GGWash had quite a bit to say as well:

A couple folks pointed out that, like a hot potato, you can't just hand the District and its residents to a state that doesn't want it. Talk about retrocession is, perhaps, analogous to other attention-grabbing efforts by far-away congressional representatives to alter the District's gun laws, its budget resources for abortion services, and so on. Other contributors were also quick to follow up and hammer home the political infeasibility of the idea.

However, if we set aside feasibility for a moment and enter the realm of pure speculation, talk about retrocession produced some interesting ideas and important points.

Let's play Make-a-State!

Bradley Heard went outside the box and suggested "New Columbia County, MD," to be created by merging the non-federal portions of the District with the parts of Prince George's County that are inside the Beltway. The move, Brad said, would formalize "Ward 9," the local nickname for this part of Prince George's.

As someone who grew up in the District and now lives in Prince George's, I also see the appeal of this idea. It makes a lot of sense from a cultural point of view, and it also consolidates a chunk of the Metrorail constituency. However, since Annapolis, and not Prince George's County (or New Columbia County!) makes WMATA funding decisions, the help for regional transit would be indirect at best. Creating a new state with the District's former Virginia components (Arlington and Alexandria), plus Fairfax County, Falls Church and Fairfax City, and Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland would be much better.

Is DC better off alone?

Patrick Kennedy pointed out the District has more to lose with retrocession even beyond the tax issues Chad enumerated in his post:

"The city-state governance model that the District has...[is] closer to the optimal size for government and cuts out a lot of layers of valueless government bureaucracy...I appreciate how a single entity oversees the formulation of policy through law, the promulgation of regulation to carry out the law, and the enforcement/execution of those laws. The District being only 67 square miles and 680,000 people, I think the government is able to do it with a fairly high degree of responsiveness and local accountability that is lacking for cities in larger counties in large states. It is more nimble and has a greater degree of latitude in responding to local priorities."

Payton Chung seconded this point, calling the District's city-state status a "woefully under-appreciated bonus. Compare DDOT's responsiveness to Maryland's SHA, for example."

David Gottfried politely declined Representative Chaffetz's offer:

"While Maryland is a beautiful state with lots of terrific people, I, for one, have absolutely no interest in assuming a portion of Maryland's long-term suburban and exurban infrastructure liabilities. The fact that our entire municipality is effectively urban is a tremendous fiscal structural advantage that I do not want to give up."

Matthew Mulbrandon disagreed, dismissing the DC Council as "corrupt," and arguing that "we can do a more complete housing policy if the suburbs are included... becoming part of Maryland is a great idea."

Give the people what they want

Chad followed up his original post by agreeing with Patrick and Payton that DC reaps a lot of unique benefits thanks to its position as a city-state. He also said that rather than push for whatever gains might come from joining with Maryland, it would be worth waiting for a better political climate in which to push for statehood:

With full Republican control of the federal government, DC Statehood once again feels like a far-off fantasy. Washingtonians and their congressional allies must bide their time until Democrats have control of the house, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, and a president willing to welcome DC into the union with full rights. At such a time, DC would merely need to launch another statehood referendum and petition. While this is a tall order, such a day may be closer than we realize. Indeed, the recession and Bush’s unpopularity brought Democrats within one Senate seat from this position in 2009. If Trump’s presidency experiences a similar collapse, DC may soon get its chance to gain some representation to go along with its taxation.

Hope abides. Indeed, passion for DC statehood runs deep on the GGWash contributor list. Jared Alves tartly summed up the sentiments of many:

"The area that includes the modern city has existed independently of Maryland since 1790, has a distinct identity, and just approved--by nearly 80% of voters--a referendum to urge the city to pursue statehood. We should acknowledge the principle of self-determination...Otherwise, I'm happy to see Vermont and Wyoming to consolidate with nearby states for lack of residents."


Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.