Saturday, November 10, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Statehood for PR, Statehood for DC

by Peggy Robin

The good news is that talk of a 51st state is back in the news. The bad news for us is that the focus is on Puerto Rico, not DC. For the first time a majority of Puerto Ricans are in favor of statehood: CNN: Puerto Ricans Favor Statehood For the First Time. However, it's entirely possible that the surge of interest in a 51st state could be converted into good news for DC as well. Among the many reasons that DC has been frustrated in its attempts to gain the benefits of statehood for its citizens are three seemingly trivial but widely, even stubbornly, held arguments:

1. That "50 states" is a nice round number and we should stop there.
2. That the nicely symmetrical design of the field of stars in the US flag would be thrown out of whack by any additional stars.
3. That DC would no longer be the District of Columbia but would get a ridiculous new name, "New Columbia" if it became a state.

Statehood for Puerto Rico could work to counter all three of these arguments.

To the first argument, if Puerto Rico can break the "51 barrier," then DC should have an easier time becoming number 52. It's an even number, and an iconic one, too: it's the number of cards in a deck.

To the second argument, I turn to a web site called "How to squeeze in the 51st Star". Enter "51" in the number box and you will immediately see that a clean, symmetrical layout is not only possible – it's really quite attractive. As is the 52-star design. I went ahead and tried out all the numbers of stars up to 100 and was surprised to discover so many pleasing configurations.

Try it yourself! Spoiler alert: 69 and 87 are the duds, and there are four other number layouts that are probably too awkward or ugly to be acceptable. (I'll let you guess which ones I think those are.)

The third argument, that we don't need a state called "New Columbia," may be the toughest of the three to counter.  Advocacy for a state called New Columbia has been official DC policy, since a referendum held 30 years ago, on May 29, 1982. (I learned this from the DC government's web site: The need for a new state name comes from the wording of the US Constitution, which mandates an area not exceeding ten square miles called the District of Columbia to be under Congressional control.  To achieve statehood without amending this section of the Constitution, Congress would have to pass legislation limiting its area of control to those blocks containing the monumental core of the city, and that would be the "District of Columbia." Which would leave the rest of the city where people actually live to be the State of, well, something with a name other than "District of Columbia." But let's admit it -- "New Columbia" is just plain silly. And it leaves you with an even sillier dilemma of what to do about our 2-letter postal code: We already have an NC, so we need to be something else or stay DC.

Here are two possible solutions to the problem: We take our cue from Puerto Rico (and Virginia, Massachusetts, and Kentucky) and call ourselves a Commonwealth. We could be the Commonwealth of Columbia, postal code CC. Or we could adopt a two-part name (on the model of Rhode Island, which is officially designated the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations), but in this case we could adopt a second description of the land area, becoming the Commonwealth and District of Columbia. That is different enough to distinguish it from the federal District of Columbia as mandated by the US Constitution, and allow us to keep the everyday nickname and initials, DC.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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