The average American has no idea that D.C. doesn’t have the same rights as the rest of the country. That includes no representation in the Senate and a non-voting representative in the House. While U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton serves in the House by working in committees, speaking on the floor and sponsoring bills, she can’t vote on any legislation’s final passage.
Realizing all this, Washingtonians from all ends of the political spectrum gathered together for the Sept. 19 statehood hearing at the Rayburn House Office Building. This hearing focused on legislation that would turn D.C. into a state, and create a federal government enclave that would include the White House, Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. The proposal would alleviate many of the problems above, including creating two Senate seats, and giving Congresswoman Norton voting powers in the House. People came out in droves to rally for statehood, people outside handed out stickers and T-shirts that said, “51 for 51”. Inside, the line to get into the hearing rounded two corners. There were so many people that a jumbotron was set up outside in The Spirit of Justice Park. Jumbotron viewers were able to be boisterous, cheering for the speakers who backed statehood.
However, HR 51, the name of the bill, has historically shown that it has a long way to go. The last time HR 51 was put up for a vote was in 1993; the bill failed in a vote of 153 to 277 with 105 Democrats joining 172 Republicans in voting down the bill. However, Norton (D-DC) has built up support for HR-51, reporting 216 co-sponsors in the House and 33 co-sponsors in the Senate, virtually ensuring passage through the House.
Norton tweeted on Sept. 5 that spoke on the House Floor to convince “remaining straggling House members” to co-sponsor the bill. However, it is unknown when a vote will be take place for a final decision. (Click here or below to watch the entire hearing, courtesy of The Washington Post.)
Spoke on the House floor to ask remaining straggling House members to cosponsor D.C. statehood bill. We already have almost enough cosponsors to pass the bill this Congress with cosponsors alone.
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) September 10, 2019
The Constitutional Question
The framers of the Constitution intended to keep any state from having undue influence over the federal government, and thus, contemporary Republicans insist making D.C. a state will require a constitutional amendment. When Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., asked if Congress had any authority to change the Constitution apart from the amendment process, constitutional scholar Roger Pilon, Ph.D., replied, “None whatsoever.”
“You cannot change the constitution by a mere statute,” said Pilon, a Constitutional scholar. “As I read the Constitution, [statehood] would require an amendment because it is unique, provided for in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17. The idea that you can bootstrap that to article four is a sleight-of-hand argument.” Pilon went on to say that Congress does not have the authority to alter the status of the District by legislation.
The clause that Pilon referenced states: “To exercise exclusive legislative jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards and other needful buildings.”
Zachary Israel, national committeeman for D.C. Young Democrats, says that those saying statehood would require an amendment are incorrect.
“I urge them to read the ACLU of D.C.’s constitutional legal analysis of statehood a few weeks ago,” Israel said. “It goes over through every single point. The bottom line is that it is constitutional; we don’t need an amendment to the Constitution to get statehood. The vast majority of states actually entered the union through an act of Congress — not a constitutional amendment.”
“We don’t really need that, and every day that goes by where there are 700,000 disenfranchised Americans is a day too long so we need to do this as quickly as possible, doing it through Congress is the fastest way.”
Race and Partisanship
The role race plays in denying statehood is an unavoidable issue. After the government moved to strip D.C. of its local governance rights in the 1870s, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate soldier, said that it had been done “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats … the rats being the Negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.” Then in 1972, when D.C. was about 70 percent black, at the hearing for D.C’s self-determination, Rep. John Rarick of Louisiana said that D.C. was “a sinkhole, rat infested, the laughing stock of the free and Communist world.”
At the recent statehood hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, “When they say it’s not about race or partisanship, you can be sure it’s about race and partisanship, and that’s tragic.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stated that granting D.C. statehood would give Democrats an advantage due to the city’s diverse and politically liberal population, which would presumably grant the Senate two Democratic seats.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded, stating that “Yes, it is true that we are brown and liberal, but denying statehood would be unfair no matter who was affected.”
“It would be unfair if we were conservatives from a rural district built around agriculture or an industrial city in the heartland,” Bowser said in her testimony. “This is America, and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law.”
Todd Brogan, a Ward 4 committee member for the D.C. Democratic Party, said, “as a Democrat, this would be two more seats in the Senate, which would help significantly change the way we govern, and big democratic policies might actually have a chance at actually getting passed by Congress if D.C. is a state.”
In 1995, the District of Columbia was in deep financial trouble. With a combination of operating deficits, budget management inefficiencies, white flight, and other factors, D.C. was a few steps away from filing for bankruptcy. In response, then-President Bill Clinton signed a law establishing the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, a five-member board that would have the power to review and override financial decisions made by the mayor and the district council.
According to WAMU, In the past, D.C.’s budget could only go into effect after getting explicit Congressional approval The long delays in the federal appropriations process has resulted in “hiring delays, lost revenues, untimely procurements,“ according to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, opened at the hearing by saying, “The District is simply not yet self- sustainable. “We cannot ignore the elephant in the room,” Jordan said. “The District government currently faces serious allegations of misconduct.” Jordan moved to subpoena D.C council member Jack Evans(D), citing the fact that Evans is the target of a grand jury probe into his official actions and his private consulting business. But after D.C. balanced the budget for four years straight under Mayor Anthony Williams, the control board was able to go dormant on Sept. 30, 2001, but still could theoretically take control if the city was to ever fall into another financial crisis.
“We don’t have exclusive control over our budget, exclusive control over our laws,” said Markus Batchelor, vice president of the D.C. Board of Education and candidate for a D.C. Council at-large seat. “I think for residents who pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the country, that has a higher population than two states, that have fought and died in every war since the inception of the country, that we deserve a fair and equal voice both locally and nationally.”
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., remarked during the hearing, “This is the ridiculousness you get into when you try to draw a federal city into a teacup.”
But the journey to the present day can be quite confusing. According to WAMU, the District was controlled by the federal government in 1800. In addition to having no voting Congressional representation, it had no votes in the Electoral College. However, the people who lived there were able to vote for either Maryland or Virginia congressmen, depending which state used to own the land where they resided.
From 1820 to 1871, the mayor of the District was popularly elected. But in 1871, a new law reorganized D.C.’s political structure, putting a territorial governor at its head (appointed by the president). Then a three-person board of commissioners governed the District until 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson created a “mayor-commissioner” of the District and a nine-member council.
In 1961, the country ratified the 23rd amendment to the Constitution, granting D.C. votes in the Electoral College. In 1971, the District got its first non-voting delegate to Congress. But it wasn’t until 1973 that the Home Rule Act was passed, enacting the governing structure still in place in D.C. today. The act gave D.C. the power to elect its own mayor and a 13-member council, which functions like a legislature in any other state — with a few key exceptions.
The Home Rule Act still requires congressional sign-off on all of D.C.’s laws, and gives the federal government ultimate control of the District’s purse strings. The act also declined to give D.C. any voting representation in Congress, a fight that the mayor and U.S. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton continue to this day.
In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment granting D.C. voting representation in Congress. But amendments to the Constitution need 38 of the 50 states to ratify them before they’re approved. By the seven-year expiration date, only 16 states had ratified the amendment, and it failed.
The Next Step for D.C. Statehood
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D- Md., has previously stated that he will hold another meeting to prepare the bill for the House’s voting floor.
If the bill proceeds to the floor, it will most likely pass the Democratic-dominated House. However, Democrats have expressed apprehension of the bill’s success in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
Bo Shuff, the Executive Director of D.C. Vote, says he hopes the bill will pass so that he will gain “full equality.”
“I hope to gain full equality, I hope to be treated like everyone else in the country,” said Shuff. “I hope to have my voice heard, I hope to have representation in the senate that we’ve never had, I hope to have assistance to be able to avail myself of the federal government, like Washington, D.C. residents have never been able to. And I hope to move toward justice and freedom that everyone in America deserves.”
Nancy Vu and Jaylen Williams are reporters for the Howard University News Service.