Evan Katz

Republicans have proven time and again that they’re willing to manipulate rules, blatantly violate norms, and capture institutions to secure their electoral and ideological interests. Democrats, to their credit, have largely been reluctant to stoop to Republicans’ level. But recently, some on the left have been more willing to engage in overtly obstructionist tactics and “dirty politics” for partisan advantage. As Sam outlined during the Brett Kavanaugh debacle in 2018:

Democrats have rightly concluded, therefore, that Republicans have no interest in honoring established rules and norms, and liberals are now attempting to exploit the GOP’s tactics for their own gain. More broadly, Democrats are adopting the obstructionist tactics embraced by Republicans throughout the Obama presidency, and they have actually been reasonably successful.

As Democratic electoral prospects continue to surge and unified government seems increasingly likely, Democrats may finally have the opportunity to undo years of Republican dirty politics and actualize an ambitious policy agenda. And this time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats tried some partisan tricks of their own to take advantage of unified control for the first time since the 111th Congress.

For example, a Democratic-majority Senate could eliminate the legislative filibuster to get around obstructionist Senate Republicans, allowing Democrats to pass legislation in both chambers with only simple majorities. That could give Democrats the chance to pass sweeping voting rights legislation, expand and improve on the Affordable Care Act, finally pass real gun control laws, and create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, among other things. In other words, aside from constitutional constraints, Democrats would be limited only by their own desires and level of party unity during the 117th Congress.

If Democrats wanted to take that a step further, they could do even more to secure lasting control of government. There are plenty of outlandish ideas at the fringes of the party, including an aggressive court packing scheme to circumvent the conservative majority on the Supreme Court bench. But one idea that recently has gained some traction is adding new states to the Union to increase the number of Democratic seats in the Senate. This would help overcome Republicans’ advantage in small states, which have the same representation in the Senate as large states despite much smaller populations. Without the filibuster, Democrats would only need a simple majority in both chambers and the president’s signature to add as many states as they wanted.

Momentum already exists. In a historic vote late last month, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to grant statehood to the District of Columbia. Aside from genuine concerns about representation and federal overreach, the partisan motivation for statehood is obvious: D.C.’s population is overwhelmingly Democratic, which would give Democrats an additional two seats in the Senate. I have zero doubts that Republicans would fight D.C. statehood tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court because of its unique constitutional situation, but I can’t imagine D.C. would be stripped of statehood once it’s granted.

But why stop there? Puerto Rico, America’s largest territory, has a population of more than 3 million people, and statehood has been salient topic on the island over the last several years. A 2017 non-binding referendum showed that the vast majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood, though the referendum suffered from low turnout. Another status referendum will be on the ballot this year. Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Dorian devastated Puerto Rico, and its status as a territory has complicated efforts to distribute federal aid for recovery. Puerto Ricans who live in the continental United States strongly favor Democrats, like Hispanic voters in general, which would theoretically secure two additional Senate seats for Democrats if the island became a state.

Since D.C. and Puerto Rico both have active, long-standing statehood movements that Democrats have supported for years, the party could easily justify admitting the states without needing to mention any electoral benefits. D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black, lack any representation in Congress despite paying federal taxes. Puerto Rico’s current status is a legacy of colonialism and imperialism and leaves it the junior partner in an unequal relationship. It wouldn’t be as overtly partisan or politically motivated as, say, partitioning California to create multiple new blue states.

The electoral and political implications of two new states are fascinating. Much like how Republicans captured the Supreme Court and installed a conservative majority on the bench for the foreseeable future, a “52-state solution” would represent an institutional capture of the Senate by Democrats. Since each state is entitled to two senators, the Senate would expand to 104 seats. To get to this point, the Senate would already have an existing Democratic majority in the 117th Congress; assuming they win a net four seats in November, that would be a 51–49 advantage. Four new seats from blue states would expand that advantage to 55–49, likely preserving a long-term Democratic majority in the Senate.

Because the House’s size was fixed at 435 members in the early twentieth century, D.C.’s and Puerto Rico’s House seats would ultimately come at the expense of other states. But those changes wouldn’t take effect until the 118th Congress, when all 435 seats will be reapportioned based on the results of the 2020 census. Because both new states would be entitled to immediate representation, the House could have upwards of 441 members during the 117th Congress: one new representative from D.C. and up to five from Puerto Rico.

Presidential elections would also take on a slightly different look starting in 2024. The magic number in the Electoral College would remain 270, but the total number of electoral votes would increase to 539 (435 + 104). If just D.C. were added, assuming the House remained at 435 seats, the Electoral College would actually shrink to 537 electoral votes because D.C.’s House seat would come at the expense of another state; D.C. currently receives three electoral votes as per the Twenty-third Amendment, and the amendment would be rendered obsolete if D.C. became a state. Democrats would benefit in this scenario, albeit only slightly, as they’d be favorites to lock down Puerto Rico’s six or seven electoral votes. But it’s also possible that those electoral votes would be reallocated from other blue states, mitigating any net advantage.

All of this being said, I’d caution Democrats not to go overboard with flouting norms, altering institutions, or making drastic changes for partisan gain. Though they’ve been crumbling recently, norms are especially important to ensure effective democracy. To quote Sam again:

[W]e seem to be in a death spiral of sorts. One party, usually the GOP, makes a provocative move that undermines institutions and elicits some kind of response from their political opponents. Unfortunately, the response tends to magnify, not mitigate, the damage wrought. In the end, everyone ends up worse off and the country and its political system become increasingly damaged.

I wouldn’t necessarily argue that admitting new states violates any existing norm; it happened frequently throughout the nineteenth century and 37 times since the American Revolution. But if Democrats went overboard in adding/partitioning states for obvious partisan gain, Republicans might be emboldened to do the same whenever they returned to power. Like with court packing, that could create a race to the bottom to add as many friendly states as possible, balkanizing the United States in the process.

Democrats should also remember that any structural changes they make to help themselves while in power will only hurt them when they inevitably lose it. Mitch McConnell of all people, likely concerned about the implications of a Democratic majority in the Senate, has warned Democrats not to change the filibuster rule for that very reason. And one-party control of government is fleeting; voters opposed to the party in power turn out in greater numbers during midterm elections, and the voters that put the party into power usually end up disappointed. Indeed, voters upended unified government after only two years in the 1994, 2010, and 2018 midterm elections. It’s extremely likely that Republicans will see a red wave of sorts in 2022, allowing them to take control of the House and punish Democrats with even more obstructive behavior.

Of course, adding two new states probably puts the Senate out of reach from Republicans for the time being. The rewards to Democrats of major structural changes might be too good to pass up—especially if they result in the passage of key agenda items—even if they continue undermine the efficacy and health of our political system.