Don’t Fall for the D.C. Retrocession ‘Okey-Doke’

Retrocession is being used to derail what Washingtonians actually want: statehood.

An illustration of Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress / The Atlantic

About the authors: Chris Myers Asch is a historian at Colby College. He is the co-author of Chocolate City: Race & Democracy in the Nation's Capital. George Derek Musgrove is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.

D.C. has never had such good friends in Congress. On April 22, the House passed a bill to grant statehood to the District, sending the legislation to the Senate, where 45 Democrats have already signed on as co-sponsors.

Some Republican lawmakers, too, have voiced their support for D.C. residents’ long-standing efforts to gain voting representation in Congress. Yet they reject statehood as a “power grab” by congressional Democrats who simply want two more safely Democratic seats in a tightly contested Senate. These Republicans advocate an alternative solution: Ask Maryland to absorb the District through a process called “retrocession.”

Retrocession would require Maryland to take back, or “retrocede,” most of the 68 square miles of territory that it gave up in 1790 to create the federal seat of government. (Virginia also provided roughly 32 acres of its territory on the western bank of the Potomac River, but that land—including the city of Alexandria and Arlington County—was retroceded back to Virginia in 1846.)

Republican retrocessionists recognize that D.C. residents endure second-class citizenship. D.C. residents’ lack of representation in Congress is “unfair,” argues Representative Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, who introduced the District of Columbia–Maryland Reunion Act in January. Johnson says that his bill would accomplish the “the goal of representation without creating a 51st state—that’s compromise.” In recent days, prominent moderate Republican Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have also picked up this message.

It sounds simple, fair, even refreshingly bipartisan. But don’t fall for the okey-doke.

You know the okey-doke. It is a move designed to distract your opponent so that you can take advantage of him. You fake right and run left to avoid a tackle in football, or pump-fake and drive past a defender in basketball. And Republicans today are using retrocession as an okey-doke to erode support for statehood legislation.

Students of D.C. history know that Washingtonians have three paths to full representation in Congress: statehood, amending the Constitution to give the city a vote, or retrocession. District residents have tried all three strategies in their 220-year quest for full citizenship rights. Only retrocession has been successful. So why not retrocession now?

The simple answer is that very few people in either D.C. or Maryland want it.

Since the early 1980s, a significant and growing majority of D.C. voters have been on the record as favoring statehood. A 1980 statehood referendum passed with 60 percent of the vote; a 2016 referendum registered 86 percent support.

By contrast, few D.C. voters want retrocession. One 1999 poll found that only a fifth of D.C. voters favored becoming part of Maryland. Last year, the city’s leading retrocession advocate, David Krucoff, earned just 1.6 percent of the vote in his bid to unseat D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a steadfast statehood supporter.

In Maryland, too, few voters seem interested in absorbing the District. In 1990, supermajorities of both chambers of the Maryland legislature, the people charged with voting to accept the District if Congress gives it back, stated that they did not favor retrocession. A 2016 Public Policy Polling survey found that only 28 percent of Marylanders favored “annexing Washington, D.C.,” compared with 44 percent who opposed it. By 2019, a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that opposition to retrocession had climbed to 57 percent, while 51 percent of Marylanders favored statehood for the District.

Given such opposition, it is ironic to witness states’-rights Republicans clamoring for a proposal that involves the federal government forcing an unwanted mandate upon unwilling citizens.

Why are D.C. residents so opposed to retrocession? Their hostility is well earned.

Many reject retrocession in part because of its historical association with slavery. In the 1830s, the District was one of America’s largest slave-trading ports, and abolitionists inundated Congress with petitions to ban the slave trade in the nation’s capital. Nervous white Alexandrians came to see retrocession back to Virginia as a way to gain political rights, prosper economically, and protect their largest and most profitable industry from the unpredictable whims of Congress.

Slaveholding representatives from Eastern Virginia, anxious to gain more pro-slavery friends in Richmond, helped those Alexandrians by pushing a retrocession bill through the state legislature in 1846. Congress gave its stamp of approval later that year and the federal district was reduced in size by nearly one-third. (Four years later, Congress did indeed ban the slave trade in D.C., as part of the Compromise of 1850.)

Adopting the strategy of 19th-century slave traders is a tough sell in a plurality-Black city.

Retrocession would also not be easy or natural, despite what some advocates suggest. D.C. has been separate from Maryland for 230 years. It has its own identity, culture, and interests, and the citizens of D.C. want the full power of statehood—a representative and two senators—to advocate for those interests in the national legislature. Forcing D.C. to become part of Maryland would be as strange as forcing Maine to rejoin Massachusetts (which it was a part of before 1820) or mandating the reunification of South and North Dakota, which were a single territorial government from 1861 to 1889, before congressional Republicans split them in two and admitted them as separate states in order to pad their Senate majority.

But the more immediate reason for many District residents’ hostility is that in recent decades retrocession has been used as an okey-doke to derail D.C. residents’ chosen strategy for gaining representation in Congress.

Not all retrocession advocates have offered their proposals in bad faith. The first retrocession bill was introduced in Congress in 1803, and dozens followed. Most 19th- and early-20th-century retrocession advocates were making a serious effort to resolve the lingering conflict between Congress’s exclusive legislative authority over the federal district and the principle of no taxation without representation. Once the then-majority-Black District gained home rule and began advocating for representation in Congress in the 1970s, however, Republicans began introducing retrocession legislation not to solve a policy problem but to impede District activists’ efforts.

In 1978, when then–D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy led a broad, bipartisan coalition to pass the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which would have treated D.C. as though it were a state for purposes of representation in Congress, Republican Senator James McClure of Idaho offered an amendment that would retrocede the District to Maryland. In 1993, when the House of Representatives held its first vote on statehood, retrocession reappeared in the form of a bill introduced by Republican Representative Ralph Regula of Ohio. And in 2007, Louie Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, introduced retrocession legislation in an effort to derail the District of Columbia Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act, sponsored by Delegate Norton and Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia. Gohmert, who earlier that year had claimed that District residents were better represented than any other U.S. citizens because “every senator and every member of Congress has a vested interest in seeing that [the District] works properly,” freely admitted that his legislation was designed to derail the Norton/Davis bill.

D.C. residents might therefore be forgiven for viewing the current retrocession bills with skepticism and wondering whether their Republican friends are acting in bad faith. Representative Johnson and other supporters of retrocession evince no substantive knowledge about the District or interest in its struggle for representation. No retrocession advocates have met with D.C.’s elected leaders or longtime voting-rights advocates, according to representatives of the mayor’s office and D.C. Vote and Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, the principal statehood-advocacy organizations. None shows any serious interest in building a local (or national) consensus for their approach. They are all, however, energetic opponents of statehood.

Securing D.C.’s full representation in Congress is long and politically delicate work that involves organizing at least two different constituencies. First, advocates must convince District residents that a certain strategy (statehood, retrocession, or a constitutional amendment) is the best path to congressional representation. Second, those advocates must use the city’s relatively meager resources to persuade a majority in Congress to support their plan.

After 40 years of organizing, activists have convinced well more than 80 percent of D.C. residents that statehood presents the best way to gain full representation in Congress. This is in large part because recent events have convinced a majority of national Democrats that D.C. statehood is both just and in the party’s interest because it would add two reliable Democratic votes in the Senate. These developments were hard-won and long in coming. Just 30 years ago, the Democratic caucus was split on the issue.

So, at this moment, when District self-determination advocates’ statehood strategy is finally bearing fruit, don’t now fall for the GOP’s retrocession okey-doke. See the GOP retrocession bills for what they are: a transparent attempt to derail the District’s best chance in decades to win full citizenship rights.