Tom Cotton makes the wrong case against DC statehood

By Cotton's reasoning, if elite lawmakers are satisfied that an area's population has worthwhile jobs, then local taxpayers may deserve statehood.
Image: Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting with fellow Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are at the Capitol to discuss the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws, in Washington on Nov. 27, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

It often goes overlooked, but 700,000 American taxpayers in the nation's capital have no voice in the United States Congress -- because the District of Columbia is not a state. It is a flaw in our political system that House Democrats hope to address by approving legislation to create the nation's 51st state.

"It is an American issue. The principles of our democracy are based in the fact that every person is represented equally and all those who pay taxes should be represented," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said yesterday.

As a practical matter, the bill has no realistic chance of success in the Republican-led Senate, and even if it were to somehow advance in the upper chamber, Donald Trump has already said quite explicitly that he opposes giving Americans in D.C. representation in Congress. Indeed, the president has been quite candid on this, framing his position in overtly partisan terms.

Some of the White House's allies, however, have tried to defend the GOP line in more subtle ways. Yesterday, for example, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) made his case as to why D.C. does not deserve statehood.

"Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state."

As best as I can tell, the far-right Arkansan did not appear to be kidding.

Not surprisingly, some of Cotton's colleagues did not find his nonsense persuasive.

"Job shaming! Awesome! I'm in. Great idea. This CANNOT go wrong. Let's rank the virtue of every profession and if your state has too many workers in the bottom 20% you get kicked out of America. Who wants to start??" tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). "DC residents are Americans who pay federal taxes and they shouldn't get screwed just because Tom Cotton doesn't think they have the right jobs," wrote Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Quite right. By Cotton's reasoning, if elite lawmakers are satisfied that an area's population has worthwhile jobs, then the American taxpayers in that area may be deserving of statehood. But if elite lawmakers conclude that those Americans' communities are insufficiently "well-rounded," then those taxpayers should be denied representation on Capitol Hill.

Proponents of D.C. statehood have already noted many times that D.C.'s population is already larger than some states, a list that includes North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Those states have overwhelmingly white populations, while the majority of D.C. residents are African American.

And as Jon Chait explained yesterday, the racial component of the debate is relevant: "Why should people's political rights depend on their participation in the resource-extraction economy? Is it because people who work in those fields are ... well, hold that thought."

Cotton went on to suggest statehood for D.C. would be wrong because he doesn't trust local voters to exercise wisdom when electing officials. "Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor?" he asked. "Would you trust Marion Barry?" To which Chait added:

One might ask why we would trust the people of Arkansas with full statehood when they elected a senator so panicky about demonstrations against the murder of a black man that he hysterically called for troops to be brought into the streets. One might also wonder why Cotton is so entrusting of Donald Trump, given ... well, everything Trump has done. But Cotton did not explain what it is about D.C. voters that makes them inherently dangerous with the powers of state government. His premise about which groups of Americans can be trusted with equal political representation, and which cannot, comes through perfectly clear.

The House vote on D.C. statehood is scheduled for today. Whether it will have any Republican supporters remains unclear, but it's expected to pass the Democratic-led chamber easily.

Update: The bill passed the House today, 232 to 180. Zero Republicans voted for it.