Washington, D.C. Retrocession: Ensuring Representation for America’s Capital

By Charles Henry ’26

Charles Henry ’26

The District of Columbia, commonly known as Washington, D.C., is the seat of the United States federal government and is home to around 670,000 Americans. Washington, D.C. was created by Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution, which established the District in territory appropriated from Maryland and Virginia. 

Uncle Sam keeps D.C. on a leash; the federal government directly administers D.C., meaning that Congress has the unique power to override any decision made by the local government. Additionally, D.C. residents could not vote in federal elections until the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, which granted the District three Electoral College votes in presidential elections. However, D.C. residents remain unrepresented in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the primary federal law making institutions. 

Unlike residents of U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, D.C. residents must pay federal taxes, leading the local government to issue license plates featuring the phrase “taxation without representation.” Our government is supposed to be limited in scope, and it is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, yet it rules our capital like a fiefdom. This is wrong; we must not stand by a status quo that denies our compatriots fair representation.

The most common proposed solution is to shrink the Constitutionally-mandated federal district to the area immediately around Capitol Hill and to make the rest of Washington, D.C. the 51st state in the Union. A 2016 referendum found 85 percent of D.C. voters in favor of statehood, and in 2020, House Democrats rammed through a statehood bill on party lines, only for it to be blocked by Senate Republicans. D.C. has voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential nominees in every election since it was enfranchised, resulting in a clear political incentive for Democrats to create a new state—and pick up two U.S. Senators. Republicans view this option as an obvious power grab, making D.C. statehood dead on arrival in our age of polarized politics. 

Fortunately, some Republicans have proposed an alternative solution: retrocession to the State of Maryland. This proposal, like the statehood proposal, would shrink the federal district to the area around Capitol Hill, but instead of creating a new state, the rest of the city would become part of Maryland. D.C. residents would gain representation in Congress and in the Maryland state government, where their elected representatives could participate in policymaking without the federal boot hovering overhead. Retrocession requires the approval of both chambers of U.S. Congress and the Maryland state government, which thus far has not taken a position on the issue. If Democrats are true to their word that what matters most is fair representation for D.C. residents, they must join Republicans in supporting retrocession.

There is already a roadmap for making retrocession happen. In 1847, residents of Alexandria County—the Virginian territory originally ceded to Washington, D.C. at the District’s inception—opted to leave D.C. and its powerless local government and rejoin Virginia. Virginia was initially reluctant to take back the territory and debated the measure for several months but was persuaded by Alexandria County’s jubilant residents, who rapidly changed businesses, clubs and even the local newspaper to reflect their allegiance to their new state. 

While some legal scholars have asserted that Congress doesn’t have the authority to shrink D.C. to only Capitol Hill without a constitutional amendment, the Virginia retrocession suggests otherwise. In fact, a federal court ruled in Sheehy vs. the Bank of the Potomac (1849) that the Virginia retrocession was constitutional, establishing a precedent that would likely apply to Maryland retrocession as well. 

One additional element is necessary to make retrocession successful: the repeal of the 23rd Amendment. Without this step, the shrunken Capitol Hill district would maintain three Electoral College votes for the presidency, which would represent a significant concentration of political power in an area with no permanent population. The most recent statehood bill included provisions to fast-track this process, and a retrocession bill must do the same. 

The U.S. is an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere, but it didn’t get that way overnight. Americans have struggled long and hard to bring the promises of “liberty and justice for all” to fruition. This burden has been taken up by generation after generation, and it is now our turn. Today, 670,000 Americans are counting on us to extend to them the full blessings of liberty, which can only be accomplished in our political moment through the retrocession of Washington, D.C. to Maryland.