DemDaily: Status of Statehood

March 22, 2021

Bill Sponsor DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, was elected in 1990 (Jeff Malet)

Today, the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform heard four hours of testimony on H.R.51, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton's bill to make the District of Columbia the 51st state.

Norton began her testimony saying, "With the Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, we have never been closer to statehood."

The dream of achieving DC's two-century quest for independence, however, may still elude its residents as it faces what may be insurmountable GOP opposition in the US Senate, which Democrats control by a razor-thin majority.

[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States. 
-- Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution

The History
The battle over control of the nation's capital, and the right of its residents to fully participate in their own democracy, has been raging since the District of Columbia was created under the Constitution almost 220 years ago.

The City of Washington. Alexandria, originally part of DC, was returned to Virginia in 1846

It began in 1783, following a protest by unpaid Revolutionary War soldiers outside the then-Continental Congress. The neighboring Pennsylvania state government declined to call out its militia to deal with the unruly mob, and Congress was forced to adjourn to New Jersey.

The incident spurred a belief that Congress needed control over the nation's capital, and resulted in the creation of a national capital, separate from any state, by the Constitution's District Clause.

The land on which the District is formed was formally ceded by Maryland In 1788. Under the 1790 Residence Act passed by Congress, the District, as defined by President George Washington, was placed on the Potomac River between the Anacostia River and what is now called the Conococheague Creek.

The Congress officially moved to the new federal capital in December of 1800, and in 1801, incorporated the new federal District as the seat of the United States federal government.

In establishing DC as the nation's capital, and a federal district under the direct jurisdiction of the United States Congress, the 1801 District of Columbia Organic Act stripped residents of their voting representation in Congress and the right to home rule.

The act effectively stripped District residents, no longer a part of any state, of their voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College, as well as a voice in Constitutional Amendments and the right to home rule.

Walter Washington was appointed DC's first Mayor in 1967 by Lyndon Johnson and became its first elected Mayor in 1973

The citizens of DC would not be granted the right to vote for president until 1961, with the passage of the 23rd amendment, although they still do not have a voting representative in Congress.

In 1967, DC's Board of Commissioners, the city's ruling body for almost 100 years, was replaced by a mayor and city council, although they were still appointed by the president.

In 1970, the District was allowed to elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, and in 1973 Congress passed the Home Rule Act, finally giving DC residents the right to elect their own city council and mayor. Congress, however, still retains ultimate authority.

The Status of Statehood
In November of 2016, 86% of DC voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in favor of statehood, calling for the D.C. Council to petition Congress to admit the District as the 51st State.

The new state would be called the "Douglass Commonwealth," named for the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (American University)

In March of 2019, the new Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives voted to pass H.R.1, the For The People Act, which endorsed full congressional voting rights and self-government for the District.

It was the first of over 150 proposed constitutional amendments endorsing D.C. Statehood over the last 100 years, to pass a chamber of Congress. H.R.1 was blocked in the GOP-controlled Senate.

On June 26, 2020, by a vote of 232 to 180, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.51, The Washington, D.C. Admission Act. Then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell again refused to bring the legislation to a vote in the Upper Chamber.

The bottom line, however, is that Statehood would mean two new Democratic seats in the US Senate and one in the US House of Representatives, as District residents are overwhelmingly Democratic, with 92.1% voting for Joseph Biden in 2020.

The Statehood Debate
Opponents of DC statehood claim the new state might enact policies inconsistent with operating the US government for the benefit of the nation as a whole and would make the federal government dependent on a single state for its security and operations.

Conversely, they say the newly formed state would be unique in that its interests would be dominated by those of the federal government, which would be the state's largest employer.

Political opponents also point to the potentially unfair influence DC, which would be the country's smallest geographic state, would have on national politics. Statehood, they claim, is merely a "power grab" by the majority party to advance its legislative agenda.

Proponents, however, point out that the 712,000 residents of DC, 46% of which are Black, already pay more taxes per capita than any state.

Despite that fact, DC currently can't use local funds to provide low-income women with abortion care through Medicaid, can't regulate and tax the sale of marijuana, and DC gun laws are subject to the whims of Congress. Without home rule, the District also loses out on countless dollars in corporate tax revenue that instead flows into Virginia and Maryland.

"I was born in Washington, DC and generations of my family - through no choice of our own - have been denied the fundamental right promised to all Americans: the right to full representation in the Congress. The simple fact is, denying American citizens a vote in the body that taxes them goes against the founding principles of this great nation." -- DC Mayor Muriel Bowser 3/22/21

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014, before Committee today (Carlos Barria/AP)

In March of 2020, DC was short-changed $755 million in CARES Act funding because the District was classified by Senate Republicans as a "territory" rather than a "state," crippling its ability to fight the coronavirus at the onset of the pandemic.

DC also can't prevent the federal government from using military force against its residents, as done in recent racial justice protests, including the June 1, 2020 incident in which tear gas was used against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square.

DC also does not have the authority to summon the National Guard for protection, as evident during the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, when Mayor Bowser had to plead with Maryland and Virginia governors to send in their National Guard troops.

(Drew Angerer)

The 117th Congress
H.R.51, which was introduced on January 4th, 2021 by Norton, DC's non-voting Delegate, currently has 215 sponsors. Democrats are expected to easily secure the 218 simple majority needed to pass the legislation in the house.

A companion bill, S.51, was introduced by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) on January 26, 2021, and sent to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, but no action has been taken on the bill. It currently has 41 co-sponsors.

Advocates will have to secure the support of all 50 Democrats and ten Republicans in the Senate to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold to advance the bill.

"The continued disenfranchisement of DC residents before Congress continues to stand out as the most blatant violation of the most important civil right that Americans have: the right to vote. Without it, without the ability to hold our leaders accountable, all of our other rights are illusory." 
-- Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. 3/22/21

In a February 19 to February 22, 2021 Data for Progress survey (MOE: ±3%), 54% of likely voters nationwide supported DC statehood, a record high.

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Kimberly Scott
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