Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
State preemption is noxious for cities, whether it happens to D.C., Charlotte, or Birmingham.
On Friday afternoon, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a citywide vote on statehood for the District. She’s angling for admission into the Union under the same terms given to Tennessee, as The Washington Post reports. A referendum won’t secure congressional representation for D.C. residents, of course, and Mayor Bowser knows so. District politicians make gestures toward statehood all the time.
While it’s clear that this vote won’t change anything, it’s just as plain that change has got to come. The proof is everywhere: in Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, and other cities across the nation, citizens who are used to enjoying autonomy are getting a taste of preemption—something District residents live with every day.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers passed a notorious bill that stripped local governments of the power to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination. The caustic bill has cost Charlotte jobs, but perhaps more importantly, it has transferred authority over important local issues affecting millions of residents to lawmakers who do not directly represent those residents.
In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley signed a bill into law blocking cities from passing local minimum-wage ordinances the day after the Birmingham City Council voted to raise its minimum wage. In Texas, the Denton City Council was forced to repeal its ban on fracking after the state issued a law prohibiting cities from passing fracking bans. Tennessee is mulling preemptive anti-transgender legislation; Mississippi has already gone there.
Paid sick leave, smoking bans, environmental controls, refugee relocation, transgender rights, plastic-bag fees, the minimum wage: All of these issues matter to voters. Residents make decisions about these matters by voting on them. But then lawmakers that residents usually did not elect make decisions about their lives, over their heads. That’s preemption—and that’s the way many things work in the District, except that instead of state legislators preempting city councilors, our laws are preempted by Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz.
In fact, maybe the District shouldn’t bother with statehood. Maybe people would be better off without states altogether. As Parag Khanna explains in The New York Times, state jurisdictions are important levers for political power, but do not resemble how the country operates socially or economically. He suggests reorganizing the country into seven regional superstructures. (District residents are only asking for Chaffetz to leave them alone.)
“To an extent, America is already headed toward a metropolis-first arrangement,” Khanna writes. “The states aren’t about to go away, but economically and socially, the country is drifting toward looser metropolitan and regional formations, anchored by the great cities and urban archipelagos that already lead global economic circuits.”
If America is heading toward a metropolis-first structure, the nation will have to drag the states kicking and screaming along. The power of depopulating rural districts isn’t waning; their representatives are asserting state authority over urban jursdictions instead.
Preemption is noxious, whether it happens to Charlotte or Birmingham or Austin. Laws that explicitly deny authority to liberal governments simply because they vote in a (liberal) way that offends (conservative) state lawmakers are anathema to the idea of small government. Americans who are willing to put principle over ideology have to see that the status quo for D.C. residents is undemocratic. For more and more Americans, home rule isn’t just a District problem.