DemDaily: The 51st State

June 26, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives, today, passed H.R. 51, The Washington, D.C. Admission Act, a bill to make Washington, DC the country's 51st state, providing the District with voting representation in the Congress and full control over local affairs.

DC's non-voting representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, elected in 1991, has led the fight for Statehood (Amanda Voisard/WashPo)

As the national capital, the District of Columbia is currently a federal district under the direct jurisdiction of the United States Congress.

This legislation, passed 232 to 180 primarily along party lines, represents the closest DC has come to achieving statehood in its 210-year history.

The battle over control of the nation's capital 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 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 City of Washington. Alexandria, originally part of DC, was returned to Virginia in 1846

The District
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 subsequently passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, incorporating the new federal District as the seat of the United States federal government.

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.

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, commissioners, DC's ruling body for almost 100 years, were replaced by a mayor and city council, although 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.

In 2016, 86% of DC voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in favor of statehood, calling for the DC Council to petition Congress to admit the District as the 51st state.

The 51st state would be called the State of Washington, D.C. in which "D.C." stands for "Douglass Commonwealth," a reference to African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in Washington, D.C. from 1877 to 1895.

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 interests would be dominated by those of the federal government, which would be the state's largest employer.

Political opponents also point to the expanded and potentially unfair influence DC, which would be the country's smallest geographic state, would have on national politics.

Proponents, however, point out that the 705,000 residents of DC, mostly Black and Brown people, already pay more taxes per capita than any state.

DC also can't prevent the federal gov't from using military force against its residents, as done in recent racial justice protests

Despite that fact, DC 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.

More recently, in a shot against statehood, DC was short-changed $755 million in the 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.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said today, "People in the District of Columbia pay taxes, fight our wars, risk their lives for our democracy. And yet ... they have no vote in the House or the Senate about whether we go to war, and how those taxes are exacted and how this is all played."

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, voting for Hillary Clinton with 90.86% in 2016.

Achieving Statehood
While more than 150 constitutional amendments and bills have previously been introduced to provide DC full representation, today's historic vote is the first time statehood has been taken up in Congress since 1993.

Under House Resolution 51, "the commonwealth (1) shall consist of all District territory, with specified exclusions for federal buildings and monuments, including the principal federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and the federal executive, legislative, and judicial office buildings located adjacent to the Mall and the Capitol Building; and (2) may not impose taxes on federal property except as Congress permits.

The bill maintains (1) the District as the seat of the federal government, and (2) the federal government's authority over military lands and specified other property."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, has made it clear that the legislation, which now goes to the US Senate for passage, will not be brought up for a vote this year in the majority-Republican chamber. President Trump has also stated unequivocally that, even if passed, he would veto the measure.

That means that the future of DC statehood lies with control of the US Senate and the White House -- and that lies in the hands of the people, at the ballot box this November.

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Kimberly Scott

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