Two presidential hopefuls and a former Supreme Court justice announced their support yesterday for a bill to make the District the 51st state, which opponents said was a predictable political move by the candidates to get votes and "another bad judgment" by the former justice.
Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.), contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, issued statements supporting the bill at a news conference called by Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) and other supporters of the bill. Neither candidate was present.
"I want to take this opportunity to join with these courageous Americans who are here today to assert their right to full equal citizenship," Biden wrote. "The residents of the District of Columbia -- more than 650,000 people -- are entitled to the same guarantees under the Constitution as all other Americans."
Simon, who said he had his staff of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution review the constitutional issue of statehood, said, "I am pleased to be able to take this opportunity to announce my support and cosponsorship of the D.C. statehood initiative they have introduced in the 100th Congress."
Opponents attacked the announcements as partisan, noting that since 1964, when city residents received the right to vote in presidential elections, the District has always cast its three electoral votes for the Democratic nominee.
"They are politically motivated," said Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), a longtime foe of the bill, which is expected to come up to a full House vote this fall. "Their position on the issue is totally of no consequence."
Former justice Arthur J. Goldberg, who also was absent from the news conference, issued a statement that said statehood for the District is not restricted by the Constitution.
"It is intolerable in a democracy that any citizen should be deprived of the full benefits of citizenship, given the fact that there are no constitutional impediments to statehood," wrote Goldberg, who is a District resident.
Opponents of the bill have argued, however, that Congress cannot grant statehood to the District without amending the Constitution.
Parris, who said he has followed Goldberg's opinions in Supreme Court cases, said, "His judgment has not improved any."
Statehood supporters have argued that although District residents pay federal taxes, they are represented in Congress only by a nonvoting delegate. In addition, the District's home rule charter gives Congress veto power over the city's legislative and budgetary affairs.
Simon, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee, agreed with Goldberg in his one-page statement and said, "Those who are looking to the Constitution to erect the obstacles they would like to place in the way of statehood are likely, in the final analysis, to be disappointed."
The bill, which has been backed by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and 98 other representatives, is generally opposed by politicians in Maryland suburbs around Washington. They fear that the city would impose a commuter tax on their residents who work in the city.
Monica Healy, director for Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Washington office, said the governor supports the right of District residents to equal representation in Congress but is concerned about a possible commuter tax.
Bill Bronrott, spokesman for the D.C. Statehood Coalition, said Fauntroy is willing to discuss putting a restriction in the bill dealing with a commuter tax.
"If the annual federal payments for city services continue, the District would not need to tax commuters," he said.