The Framers of the Constitution created a federal district because they didn’t want any one state to have too much power over the Federal Government. The political balance of power has changed — the president is now a threat to Congress and the citizens of D.C. It is time for the District of Columbia to attain statehood and obtain power over its own security forces in order to protect its residents and Congress.
On June 20, 1783, roughly 400 Continental Army soldiers marched to the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) and barred the doors. Congress owed troops months, and in some cases, years of back pay, and soldiers were hungry and worried about their futures. They feared that the war would end shortly and the army would be disbanded without pay. Congressmen worried about their safety and asked the Pennsylvania government to provide security for congressmen, but Pennsylvania refused to offer assistance. After learning of the events, Commander-in-Chief George Washington sent 1,500 troops to suppress the mutiny. Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey and reconvened in Nassau Hall.
Just a few years later, delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. They gathered in the very same hall where congressmen had trembled behind closed doors while Pennsylvania troops menaced outside. Remembering Pennsylvania’s failure to protect Congress, the delegates included a provision in the Constitution to create a federal district. The purpose was to create a zone controlled by the Federal Government so that federal officials could guarantee their own safety and protect against state intimidation.
While that principle made sense in 1789, it no longer reflects the political reality of 2021. Individual states are not a threat to Congress, instead Congress is most at risk from domestic terrorists, like the insurrection yesterday. The attack on Congress demonstrated the clear need of Washington, D.C. to have control over its own forces — independent from presidential control.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the rioters broke into the Capitol, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser requested approval to call out the D.C. National Guard. The Department of Defense rejected the request on Trump’s orders. The Secretary of the Army did call up the D.C. Guard several hours later, but only after the rioters had run rampant in the Capitol, stealing items from the House and Senate chambers, vandalizing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, and smashing windows.
While less covered by the news, D.C. residents also took cover in their homes, were forced into a 6 PM curfew, and waited for the FBI to respond to several bomb threats in the neighborhood. They too were terrorized by the mob on January 6. Yet they have no meaningful representation in Congress to represent their interests and speak out for their safety.
Technically, the president commands the National Guard, but the Secretary of the Army manages operational control. The last few years have demonstrated the increasing politicization of the National Guard in Washington, D.C. Last summer, during the peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd and systemic racism, federal forces used tear gas and physical force to clear protestors from Lafayette Square on the orders of the president. On January 6, 2021, the National Guard wasn’t called up immediately for equally political reasons. Investigations will be required to fully understand why military support wasn’t supplied when requested, but it’s clear that some reluctance derived from a desire to appease the president.
That balance of power is untenable. In 1787, when the framers crafted the Constitution, they feared the power of the states. Today, we have to fear the power of the presidency — especially in unstable, dangerous hands. D.C. statehood won’t solve all of the problems that plague our political system, but it would be a good start. As its own state, D.C. officials would have control over its own National Guard. This local control would help prevent its use against peacefully protesting citizens, as well as protect Congress and other D.C. residents as needed against domestic terrorists. The president has plenty of other powers and military forces as its disposal. It doesn’t need the D.C. National Guard as well.