The House of Representatives is laying the groundwork for a potentially historic vote Friday that aims to grant the District of Columbia statehood, as Democrats say the district’s more than 700,000 citizens have been “disenfranchised” for too long.
Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats were working “to correct an injustice.”
“For more than two centuries, the residents of Washington D.C., the District of Columbia, have been denied their right to fully participate in their democracy,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said during a news conference at the Capitol in the lead up to the vote. “Instead, they have been dealt the injustice of paying taxes, proudly serving in uniform in great numbers and contributing to the economic power of our nation while being denied the full enfranchisement which is their right.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also weighed in at a press conference Thursday, saying that while residents were born in the district without a vote, they “will not die here without a vote.”
“Let’s fight back against the cries that we are too liberal or too black or too many Democrats,” she said, calling on Democrats to take the vote again within the first 100 days of the new administration if Democrats win control of the White House.
While the bill is unlikely to become law given Republican control of the Senate, Democrats urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider the legislation once the House takes action.
“This deprivation of statehood is unjust, unequal, undemocratic and unacceptable,” Pelosi declared.
The outlook for the legislation also looks grim at the executive level. In an interview with the New York Post last month, President Donald Trump indicated that he would veto the legislation if it reached the Oval Office, saying that the District “will never be a state.”
“You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen,” he said at the time.
On Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer vehemently pushed back on the notion of bringing assumed partisanship into the discussion.
“Alaska and Hawaii were introduced into the Union in the same year, and almost everybody in Washington believed that Alaska would be a Democratic state, and they believed that Hawaii would be a Republican state — the opposite is true,” Hoyer said.
“The constitutional framers, the Federalist Papers, nobody thought that states would be admitted on the basis of their politics, rather they would be admitted on the basic premise of their citizenship as Americans, and to consider other non-germane items in casting your vote is un-American,” he added.
The bill has garnered 220 cosponsors and was crafted by D.C.’s non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is in her 15th term representing the district. The legislation was aptly assigned the bill number H.R. 51, and would admit the state of “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” as the union’s 51st state, drawing its new name from President George Washington, a Virginian, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who was from Maryland.
The boundaries of the proposed new state would encompass the district’s residential and business areas, but would exclude the federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the United States Supreme Court Building, and the federal executive, legislative, and judicial office buildings that are near the National Mall and the Capitol. Those excluded areas would then serve as the District of Columbia and would remain under federal oversight.
“For the first time, statehood will put an end to our oldest slogan: ‘taxation without representation,’” Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said at a recent press conference. “To crown that denial, D.C. residents pay the highest federal taxes per capita without equal representation. Coming in this, the third century of our nation, however, statehood means much more to us than dollars and cents. Statehood is priceless. Statehood assures that living in our nation’s capital is about pride, not prejudice.”
Hoyer also recently said that leaders decided to put the measure on the floor after the district was treated as a territory in the CARES Act, which provided relief from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as after federal troops were deployed to crack down on protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The dual crises facing the nation were compounded in the nation’s capital where people of color comprise the majority of the population.
“If D.C. were a state, it could not be shortchanged as it was under the CARES Act and its residents would be protected from the kind of civil rights violations we saw in Lafayette Square, all for the purpose of a photo op,” Hoyer, D-Md., recently argued. “This is not just an issue of local governance and fairness. It is a major civil rights issue as well.”
D.C.’s non-voting “shadow senator” Paul Strauss echoed those sentiments in an interview with ABC News. Strauss also noted that the now-infamous moment in which police, reinforced by National Guard troops, forcefully pushed back protesters outside the White House earlier this month in an effort to clear a way for Trump to visit a nearby historic church, created heightened urgency for statehood support while putting a spotlight on the district’s lack of representational autonomy.
“The difference between Washington state, where the President can tweet about wanting to send in troops, and Washington, D.C., where he can just ship them in, is that we don’t have a governor because we’re not a state,” Strauss said.
The district has some local power under the “Home Rule,” which was passed by Congress in 1973. The law grants the residents of Washington, D.C. the ability to manage affairs by electing a mayor and city council members, but gives final oversight of the district’s laws and budget to Congress. Advocates of D.C. statehood say the representational inadequacy of the “Home Rule” was highlighted in the aftermath of the recent descent of thousands of National Guardsmen and federal law enforcement officers on the nation’s capital, none of whom were requested by the city’s highest official, Mayor Bowser, who also had no oversight of them once they arrived. None of the were National Guardsmen and federal enforcement officers were ordered into the city and the management of their movement did not involve Bowser.
“People [were] looking at federal troops on street corners, and not just in front of the White House or a national monument but […] in places where the apartment buildings are,” Strauss said of the moment in an interview with ABC News. “People think we’re some kind of federal theme park with attractions and fun exhibits to see and then at night everybody goes home to some part of the United States. No, we have a vibrant community here, much of which has nothing to do with the federal government.”
That notion stands at odds with a recent tweet from Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, who seemed to conflate the district with the entirety of the nation’s government, by implying that D.C. statehood would be the equivalent of giving “‘Big Government’ its own state.”
“Does anyone believe giving Washington more power in Washington will ever help hardworking taxpayers across America? Of course not,” Brady tweeted Thursday.
According to data compiled by Intuit Turbotax, in the 2019 fiscal year, only seven states — including California, Hawaii, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, New Jersey and Vermont — had a higher income tax rate, than that of Washington, D.C., where many residents bear “Taxation Without Representation” license plate mottos on their cars.
“Residents of the District of Columbia who are predominantly people of color, pay more taxes per capita than any state in the nation and yet lack [they] U.S. senators and a full voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Vanita Gupta, the President and CEO of Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right during a Thursday teleconference.
“D.C. has more than 700,000 residents and a population larger than the populations in Vermont and Wyoming and yet has for hundreds of years been denied full political representation in our legislative branch of government,” she added, while noting that the lack of statehood creates a “second class citizenship” for the district’s residents.
Without statehood and full congressional representation, Gupta says “all other rights are really illusory.”
Some officials have noted that the lack of full political representation contradicts the country’s long-touted philosophical identity as the world’s beacon of democracy. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and supports H.R. 51, noted that dissonance in a statement earlier this month, saying that the United States is the “only democratic nation on Earth that still denies voting rights to the residents of its capital city.”
“Irony is a polite word for it,” D.C.’s Sen. Strauss says. “It’s not just irony, it is an insult.”