Grass-roots lobbying raises support for Senate bill that would make D.C. 51st state


D.C. statehood activist Josh Burch with his daughter shortly after he got involved in the statehood cause in 2011. Burch, 36, who lives in Northeast Washington, heads Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood. (Photo by Phil Portlock)

A 36-year-old District man, working in his spare time, is helping to lead a quiet grass-roots campaign that has had surprising success building support in the U.S. Senate for a bill that would make the District the 51st state.

Shoe-leather lobbying by Josh Burch’s group, Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, has played a key role in raising to 17 the number of senators jointly sponsoring a bill that would create New Columbia.

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Most of the Senate Democratic leadership, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), has signed on. Co-sponsors also include three of four senators from Maryland and Virginia. (Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who’s concerned statehood could lead to a commuter tax, is the holdout.)

A public hearing on the bill has been promised this year, although, maddeningly, it hasn’t yet been scheduled.

The bill won’t become law, of course. At least not anytime soon. Even if the Senate passed it, the Republican-controlled House firmly opposes statehood.

But we should encourage any bill, any hearing, any debate that raises public awareness of the District’s lack of elemental democratic rights.

The progress on the Senate bill is heartening after the disappointing court ruling Monday that effectively left intact (pending appeal) the absurd restrictions on the District’s ability to spend its own money.

The Senate effort is also valuable in committing as many legislators as possible to the principle that District citizens deserve full representation in Congress.

“We want people to go on the record,” Burch said. “It’s about building this coalition of people who are going to be around for a while.”

His group has about 40 active members who have gone door to door on Capitol Hill. Other grass-roots groups have worked hard, too, but D.C. Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry singled out Burch’s labors.

“This guy is making it his personal mission to go down the list [of senators],” Perry said. “He’s been making a difference.”

Burch, who lives in Brookland, in Northeast Washington, said he’s devoted 10 to 20 hours a week to the effort. He works after his wife and two children go to bed.

“I don’t need as much sleep,” he said. “I think a lot of Senate staff get e-mails from me with a time stamp around 10:45 at night.”

The campaign is focused now on persuading Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to fulfill his promise as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to schedule a hearing.

Advocates said that alone would be a landmark event.

“It would be a big step,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s non-voting House representative, said. “We don’t give hearings on bills that have no chance.”

But Carper, after distinguishing himself by being the bill’s original sponsor, has been slow to move. Originally, he was to hold the hearing last year. Now, he’s promised it by the end of 2014.

Senate committee aides said Carper hopes to have the hearing as early as the first part of summer. They said scheduling conflicts caused the delays rather than political caution in an election year.

If that’s true, Carper ought to prove it by scheduling the hearing promptly.

The statehood bill offers the important advantage of avoiding the main constitutional objection to District voting rights.

That’s because it doesn’t actually eliminate the District of Columbia but merely shrinks it to a small jurisdiction including the White House, Capitol, Mall and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.

That fulfills the constitutional requirement that the seat of government be in a federal district not to exceed 10 square miles in size. The rest of the present District would make up the new state.

A complicating factor for our region is that the new state could presumably impose a commuter tax, or income tax on suburbanites who travel to work in New Columbia.

Historically, that’s been a major objection for legislators from Virginia.

So give credit to Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who signed on as a co-sponsor in March. An aide said that Kaine viewed the commuter tax issue as a “significant” issue but that he “hopes he could convince local officials that it would be counterproductive” to impose one.

More important, the aide said, Kaine doesn’t believe the commuter tax “should be used to deprive D.C. residents of a fundamental right of citizenship.”

The rest of Congress should be equally high-minded.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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