Washington Whispers: Give Me Statehood or Give Me Death!
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Did you know that we, the 705,749 citizens of Washington D.C., pay among the highest federal taxes, but have no vote in the Senate or House of Representatives? That is classic taxation without representation.
Did you know that D.C. is the only U.S. jurisdiction without the power to appoint its own judges? Our judges are appointed by the president.
Did you know that Congress can override any legislation the D.C. government passes? And can block use of our District taxes for local purposes that they don’t like? That senators and congressmen from far-flung states, having no interest in D.C.’s local affairs, can inflict upon us laws that they are unable to pass for the nation as a whole.
Did you know that D.C. has no control over the D.C. National Guard? You may already know this if you saw the January 6 insurrection against Congress and the D.C. National Guard’s failure to appear for hours. When requested, the D.C. police hurried to the Capitol, and about 140 of them were injured while helping to protect the same Congress in which we have no vote.
D.C. has been fighting for full enfranchisement and power over its own affairs for decades. Since the House of Representatives just passed a D.C. statehood bill on April 22, and the Democratic-held Senate has introduced a similar one, it is possible that a little more lobbying and a bit of luck might finally win the day. The right to representation in Congress is a matter of fairness and equality that every American should care about. This should especially be understood now, when voting rights are under attack across the country.
The Origins of D.C.’s Current Status:
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may become the Seat of Government of the United States…” This language gave Congress sole authority over those living in the District of Columbia.
Over the course of the 20th century, this denial of democracy has been, in fits and starts, alleviated somewhat.
In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving District residents the right to vote for president.
In 1970, D.C. voters obtained the right to elect one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. (Though the current delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has no vote, she does caucus with the Democrats and sits on some committees.)
The District of Columbia Home Rule Act, passed in 1973, permitted D.C. citizens to elect a mayor and a city council that could pass laws. However, Congress retained the power to veto or alter D.C.’s laws, including how its budget—largely funded by D.C. taxes—is used. Once the District passes legislation, it must be sent to the House and Senate for review. Any member of those bodies can initiate a joint resolution to disapprove and thereby—with the President’s agreement—block those laws.
Congress has used this obstructive power numerous times. In 1998, it not only banned the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs to reduce AIDS, but refused to let D.C. use city revenues for it. (The ban was lifted in 2007, but not before many D.C. residents died.)
In 1998, Congress also prevented the use of funds to count ballots cast on a D.C. referendum to let critically ill patients use marijuana for medical purposes. Ultimately, the bar on counting the votes was overturned in the courts, but Congress continued to seek ways to block legalization of medical marijuana use. In addition, Congress has repeatedly stopped D.C. from using local tax dollars to fund abortion services for low-income residents, challenged D.C.’s efforts to control gun violence, and tried to block the District from implementing Obamacare.
The Long Road to Full Enfranchisement:
There are two possible paths to all-inclusive rights for D.C:. (1) amendment of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to give D.C. two senators and a congressman without D.C. becoming a state; or (2) statehood. Amendment of Section 8 would have to be initiated by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate, and ratified by three fourths of the states—a very tall order. To be admitted as a new state would only require Congressional approval.
D.C’s first nonvoting delegate to the House, Walter Fauntroy, led an attempt at the Constitutional amendment route and, in 1978, D.C. got the needed two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. But the resolution for full representation in Congress was not ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.
Since then, local citizens groups have continued working to get D.C. residents the full rights of citizenship. But, for many years, D.C.’s concern remained ignored or unknown in much of the country.
Our plight finally caught the nation’s attention in June 2020 when the Trump Administration deployed the U.S. military and out-of-state troops to attack peaceful protesters and occupy District streets without any need for a governor’s approval. The need for D.C. statehood was further reinforced by our mayor’s lack of authority to call out the D.C. National Guard to defend the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.
In June 2020, the House passed H.R. 51 to grant D.C. statehood. Since the Senate was then-controlled by Republicans, the bill died there. However, this spring, the House has passed H.R. 51 again. And Democratic Delaware Senator Tom Carper has introduced S.51, the Senate version of the bill.
The statehood bill proposes to restrict the federal district to a two-square mile area including federal buildings and monuments such as the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the White House, and federal executive, legislative and judicial office buildings located next to the Mall and the Capitol building. This area would remain as the capital of the nation under sole Congressional authority.
The city’s residential and commercial areas, population approximately 700,000, would become the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, honoring abolitionist Frederick Douglass, allowing us to keep the “D.C.” abbreviation. Our mayor would become the governor; our city council would become the state legislature.
In a statement on April 20, the Biden Administration formally backed statehood, saying it would provide Washington residents with “long overdue full representation in Congress.” It called upon Congress to provide for a swift and orderly transition to that statehood. The statement further declared, “This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded,” and that “Washington, D.C has a robust economy, a rich culture, and a diverse population of Americans from all walks of life who are entitled to full and equal participation in our democracy.”
Republican objections to statehood run the gamut from the ridiculous to the purely cynical, mixed with legal arguments that hold no water. All of the objections veil a racist underbelly based on the fact that, until recently, the majority of D.C.’s citizens were black, and that, according to Mother Jones, the District “still has a higher percentage of Black residents than any state.”
The most openly racist views have been expressed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise from Louisiana. Cotton said last June that D.C. citizens are incapable of governing themselves responsibly and do not deserve a voice in Congress because they don’t comprise a “well-rounded working class.”
The Intelligencer reported in April that Scalise circulated a memo relying on the decades-old shibboleth that D.C. suffers from crime, corruption, and a chronic deficit. As The Intelligencer points out, District crime is well below its 1990 levels, Scalise’s claim of corruption is based on former Mayor Marion Barry’s tenure over two decades ago, and D.C. has not only balanced its budget but accumulated a huge budget surplus in 2020—not that crime, corruption and an unbalanced budget has ever deprived any state, including Scalise’s Louisiana, of statehood.
These arguments blatantly hark back to racist tropes that non-white populations are made up of criminals who lack the values or ability to govern themselves.
At a March 22 House Oversight Committee hearing, Georgia Rep. Jody Hice argued that D.C. should not become a state because it would be the only state without an airport, a car dealership, or a landfill. Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman similarly argued that D.C. should not be a state because it is lacking in manufacturing, agriculture and mining, these allegedly being the industries that create wealth. This kind of argument implies that, as a state, D.C .could not sustain itself and would be a federal dependent. A month later, South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace claimed D.C. is too small to “even qualify as a singular congressional district.”
Setting aside that D.C.’s population is larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont, that its taxes contribute more to the national economy than many states, and that it has car dealerships within its border, and three airports nearby, none of these ridiculous objections state anything that is a requirement for statehood.
Equally ridiculous is the objection posed at the March House Oversight Committee hearing by Zack Smith of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, claiming that D.C. residents already have “undue influence over the federal government” because residents can place political yard signs lawmakers might see when they’re driving or walking around town.
In April, speaking about the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called out these kinds of bigotry, saying, “Some of my colleagues on the other side, rather than fashion any argument on the merits, have taken to denigrating the base worth of residents of the District of Columbia.”
Republicans are also calling the legislation a “Democratic power grab,” because the District vote would likely add two Democrats to the Senate.
But as Democratic Virginia Rep. Gerry Conolly replied, “How somebody votes cannot be a test of whether they have the right to vote in a democracy.”
Two years ago, Mitch McConnell said of the movement for D.C. statehood, “This is full-bore socialism on the march in the House.” And last July, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “This is about expanding the Senate map to accommodate the most radical agenda that I’ve ever seen since I’ve been up here.”
Jesse Lovell, Secretary and Communications Officer of the DC Statehood Coalition, pointed out last week that, contrary to these Republican talking points, “Statehood is far from radical or a ‘power grab’ for the Democrats. Support for full representation for D.C. was a totally bipartisan issue for decades during the 20th century, and party platforms from the 1950s through the 1970s show that…nearly half of the Republicans serving in the House and Senate in 1978 voted to support the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment.” (This was not a statehood bill, but would have given D.C. the same House and Senate representation that statehood does.)
The Republicans’ legal arguments are also anemic. They point out that the Constitution purposefully provided that the capital would not be within any state’s jurisdiction and so not at such state’s mercy. But that provision would not be violated since the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth would be removed from the capital.
Rep. Scalise argued in April, prior to the House vote, that the bill violates the 23rd Amendment. But that amendment only provides the right to vote for president and vice president, and for three electoral votes in the Electoral College. In any event, the Senate’s statehood bill provides for its repeal.
Where Do the Democrats Stand?
Forty-five Democratic senators have cosponsored the statehood bill. Joe Manchin, a critical swing vote in the Senate, initially said he was open to the idea of D.C. statehood: “I don’t know enough about that yet. I want to see the pros and cons, so I’m waiting to see all the facts. I’m open up to see everything.” But last week, he announced, “If Congress wants to make D.C. a state, it should propose a constitutional amendment and let the people of America vote.”
Delegate Norton responded sharply to Manchin’s argument, stating, “First, no new state was admitted by constitutional amendment. All 37 new states were admitted by Congress, and there has never been a successful constitutional challenge to the admission of a state. The Constitution commits admission decisions solely to Congress.”
There are four other Democratic Senators who have yet to commit: New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, and Maine’s Angus King (an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats). These four have declared themselves undecided or are reviewing the bill.
In my interview last week with Ann Hoffman, a lawyer and labor organizer with several different unions, and a 20-year volunteer in the cause of D.C. democracy, Hoffman said that the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO is working with the national AFL-CIO and state labor federations in Arizona, Maine, and West Virginia to encourage Kelly, Sinema, King, and Manchin to join the bill’s co-sponsors. Clearly, they will need to talk further with Manchin.
Of course, even if all 50 Democrats agree to vote for D.C statehood, we will still need to overcome or eliminate a Republican filibuster—or get more Democrats who actually believe in democracy into the Senate in 2022.
Despite the uncertainties in the Senate, Hoffman was optimistic about the bill’s chances: “We’ve never been this close. Things can always fall apart. But it’s never been talked about so much as it is now, on television and in newspapers all over the country… It seems impossible that we could get this far and not get it.”
Last week, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton seemed to share this optimism. When interviewed on MSNBC after the House passed the statehood bill, Norton was beaming. Asked about the difficulty of getting statehood to pass in the Senate, her smile did not fade one bit. Norton said that at some point the Senate is going to have to get rid of the filibuster, and if they get rid of it for everything else, that will apply for the statehood legislation too. Norton also noted that the more we educate the public, the more people support it.
If Joe Manchin cannot be cured of his mule-headedness on D.C. statehood and on the filibuster, it is unlikely that the Senate will be able to pass a statehood bill during this term. Nevertheless, there is reason for the optimism of Delegate Norton and grassroots citizen-activists like Hoffman. As they have noted, there never before has been this much national attention focused on D.C.’s plight. The District’s situation is now understood to be part of the national battle over voting rights and racial justice, not some separate matter. And considering that the House has passed statehood legislation both in 2020 and in 2021, if Democrats can obtain a larger majority in the Senate and retain their House majority in 2022, it should be a simple matter to reintroduce and pass legislation making D.C. our 51st state at long last.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.