Welcome to New Columbia: The Fiscal, Economic and Political Consequences of Statehood for D.C.
18 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2014
Date Written: September 23, 2014
This Essay sketches some of the long-term economic and political consequences of making Washington D.C. the 51st State. The statehood debate has overwhelmingly focused on the same set of issues: the impact of statehood on the federal government’s structure. But if D.C. becomes a state, the most impactful change in its citizens’ lives would not be their new ability to elect members of Congress; it would be the dramatic shift in economics and politics that would come with the transition to having a state rather than city government. On the day “New Columbia” enters the Union, it would bear a constellation of features unprecedented in the nation: the only state wholly part of one metropolitan region, the only state without local governments, and the only wholly urban state. These features have deep implications for the advisability of statehood when compared to the alternatives of retrocession or the stateless status quo and also furnish a blueprint for steps to mitigate the risks and exploit the benefits that statehood would offer. Part I of the Essay will discuss the special fiscal and economic conditions that New Columbia would face. On one hand, statehood would better allow D.C. to take advantage of periods of economic success. In particular, a state of New Columbia would likely be free of the restrictive confines of the Height of Buildings Act, allowing for greater growth when demand for living in D.C. is high. Moreover, the District would likely also gain greater taxing power (although it would lose some forms of generous federal funding). Yet such benefits come at a price: as a single-city state, New Columbia would face drastic risks in times of downturn. The fact that New Columbia would be entirely in one economic region, and the fact that it would exclusively be the center city of that region, would mean almost necessarily that the state would face substantial financial risks in the case of regional and urban-form related shocks. This pro-cyclical effect makes the case for retrocession stronger, and also suggests reforms like a mandatory rainy day fund if statehood is achieved. Part II discusses the implications of New Columbia’s unique internal politics. As noted, New Columbia would be the only state without local governments. The absence of separate spheres for local and state elections would have at least two major implications for New Columbia’s politics and policy. First, as a state composed of an overwhelmingly single-party city, New Columbia’s elections would likely be decidedly uncompetitive. Even in the status quo, this absence of party-level electoral competition is a likely cause of many of the pathologies in D.C. politics, from excessive restrictions on growth to its persistent problems with corruption. To ensure the state of New Columbia does not share these defects, any move towards statehood should include reforms aimed at introducing more political competition. Second, and more optimistically, the unprecedented marriage of a city and a state government offers a powerful change for innovation. Historically, the relatively circumscribed legal power of cities has prevented them from pursuing a number of effective policies because such powers are the exclusive province of states. Further, big cities are often losers in state political fights. In this context, New Columbia’s fusion of city and state would provide many opportunities for policy flexibility and discovery unavailable to most big cities.
Keywords: aldermanic privilege, bailout, balanced budget, District of Columbia, economics, electoral competition, innovation, local government, neighborhood parochialism, politics, political corruption, regional downturn, retrocession, statehood, state government, rainy day fund, taxing power
JEL Classification: H71, H72, H77, K11, K34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation