A House committee approved a bill Wednesday that would put statues of two District luminaries in the Capitol, but only after the panel's top Democrat and Republican squabbled over voting rights and whether the city should be equated with a state or a U.S. territory.
The House Administration Committee voted along party lines for a measure that calls for placing statues of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and architect Pierre L'Enfant in Statuary Hall, just as the 50 states have two statues apiece in the halls of the Capitol. The Douglass and L'Enfant statues are completed and have been sitting at One Judiciary Square awaiting permission to move into the legislative branch.
The bill has been a longtime project of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), but had taken a legislative backseat to efforts by her and others to give the District voting rights in the House. That effort is now stalled, and House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) took pains Wednesday to say the two issues were unrelated.
"I want to assure members that this has nothing to do with D.C. voting rights, over which this committee has no jurisdiction," Brady said.
But the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), wasn't buying it, claiming the statues bill "tries to show that there is an equality between the District of Columbia and the other states."
Lungren's solution was to offer an amendment to Norton's bill that would have reduced D.C.'s statue quota from two to one -- making clear that the District was different from the states -- while also giving each U.S. territory a statue.
Lungren's amendment was defeated, and the committee instead passed a separate bill giving one statue apiece to American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"There is a distinction between the states of the union, the territories [and] the District of Columbia," Lungren said, criticizing "those who are trying to circumvent the Constitution" by claiming the District deserved equal status with the states. (Lungren added that he personally supports ceding most of the District to Maryland.)
Brady fired back at the Republican.
"There are significant differences between the District of Columbia and the other territories seeking statues," Brady said, noting that D.C. has electoral votes and District residents pay federal taxes.
After her bill was approved and the committee session was gaveled to a close, Norton said it was "surprising the length to which Republicans will go to diminish the status of citizens of the District of Columbia," and marveled that "we have to beg for two statues that we should have had from the beginning."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has pledged to bring the bill up for a vote before the full House soon, while its prospects in the Senate remain unclear, particularly if other Republicans echo Lungren's concerns.
"I would think that a Democratic House with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president could at least pass a statue bill," Norton said.