The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. won’t have a vote in the midterms — but it has plenty at stake

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, center, marches in support of voting rights and D.C. statehood last year at Freedom Plaza. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Rodney Davis's (R-Ill.) elections bill was introduced the week of Aug. 14; it was introduced in July. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that D.C. residents cannot vote in the midterm election; they can, but their votes will have no impact since their representative is nonvoting. Language in this article also has been updated to remove a suggestion that D.C. seeks to take "back" control of its National Guard, since it never had control, and to make clear that this year was not the first time in years that the House and Senate appropriations proposals did not include any riders restricting how D.C. uses its money — a proposal last year would have removed the riders, but Senate Republicans added them back. The article has been corrected.

With their party in control of Congress and the White House, Democrats in D.C. had the sense that anything was possible at the start of the legislative session last year. Momentum for D.C. statehood hit an all-time high. The city government was preparing to usher in a legal recreational marijuana industry, assuming Congress would allow it. And the city was angling to take control from the feds of its parole system and the D.C. National Guard.

But now, with only a few months left in the session, those goals and others appear in doubt. And if Republicans win control of Congress in November, it may be years before D.C. has another chance at them — creating high stakes for an election that its residents will have no impact on. Congress also oversees D.C., since it’s not a state, and Republicans have already indicated that they plan to intervene in D.C. affairs.

Officials worry about legal abortion in D.C. if GOP takes Congress

The city has been used to that congressional oversight for decades — but in a post-Roe world, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) and local abortion providers warn that Republicans could try to severely curtail abortion in D.C. if they are in the majority. One Republican, Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (Ga.), has gone as far as threatening to try to end D.C.’s home rule and local government altogether — an idea Norton doesn’t think realistically would succeed in Congress but is nevertheless evidence of the hostile posture a GOP majority could take toward the city.

“The stakes [in the midterms] are perhaps higher for D.C. than any other jurisdiction,” Norton said.

RFK, parole plans fizzling this year

With the House-passed statehood bill sitting stagnant in the Senate — largely dashed after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he would not support the bill last year — D.C. had turned its attention to more readily attainable local priorities it could still pursue in Congress.

‘It’s not a local issue anymore’: D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to the center of the national Democratic agenda

But even some of those have faltered amid internal disagreement that still hasn’t been resolved — particularly the city’s hope to purchase the RFK Stadium land from the federal government through federal legislation.

Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) boldly stated her desire to turn the site into a new stadium for the Washington Commanders, with a portion of the land used for housing. But a majority of the D.C. Council members said in a June letter that they opposed bringing the scandal-plagued football team into the city, as it remains under congressional investigation over alleged widespread sexual harassment and financial improprieties. And Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said in June he would not support federal legislation to buy the land unless it includes language prohibiting an NFL stadium.

The negotiations remain at a standstill as the clock ticks. Norton has said she won’t introduce the bill until the two leaders reach an agreement — but neither Bowser nor Mendelson is budging, and they haven’t discussed RFK since June, according to Mendelson and Beverly Perry, Bowser’s special adviser.

Asked if that meant the city was giving up on RFK, with time running out in the congressional session, Perry said “the ball is in Mrs. Norton’s court” and that Norton needed to introduce the bill anyway. To some degree, all parties blame each other for the inaction.

D.C. Council chair ready to support RFK legislation — without stadium

“The mayor will never commit to any type of legislation that is going to have Congress suppress our options,” Perry said, referring to the restriction Mendelson wanted in the bill to prohibit the football stadium, which she called a “nonstarter.” “She’s not going to do that.”

Norton said she would have no problem playing “tiebreaker” between Bowser and Mendelson if they told her they couldn’t reach an agreement and both wanted her to make a decision about the legislation herself. She said in that case she would not include any land-use restrictions in the legislation.

D.C. was also poised to regain control of its local parole system from the federal government should Congress pass legislation enabling that to happen. But after more than two years the city has not come up with its own framework for a new local parole board and has indicated it won’t meet a November deadline, as DCist reported last month. If Republicans are the ones in control by the time D.C. is ready, it’s unclear if they would allow D.C. to regain control of its parole system.

D.C. wants to take back parole from the feds. But it’s taken almost no action as deadline looms.

Perry said she was hopeful that Republicans would see handing parole back to D.C. as savings for federal taxpayers, and said the mayor would hope to work with them on both the RFK land deal and parole if the GOP were in charge. “The mayor has sought to have a strong relationship with the leadership of Congress regardless of parties,” she said.

Rep. James Comer (Ky.), who serves on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and would become the most powerful House Republican with leverage over D.C. if in the majority — did not answer questions from The Washington Post about whether he would support giving D.C. parole authority or the ability to purchase RFK. But he did say in a statement that Republicans intended to exercise greater oversight powers regarding D.C. if they were in the majority, as they have in years past.

He called the District’s policies “reckless,” citing pandemic restrictions and school closures, problems with homelessness and what he claimed were “radical defund-the-police” policies, although the District increased its police budget last year.

“If Americans entrust Republicans with the majority in 2023,” Comer said in a statement, “we will conduct much needed oversight of the District to ensure all Americans feel safe visiting our nation’s capital.”

Republicans have recently offered a preview of the types of policies they would be more likely to pursue aggressively if they win the majority. During debate over Democrats’ major climate, health-care and tax bill, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) introduced a motion to block D.C. from requiring a coronavirus vaccination to attend school, which failed on a party-line vote. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) introduced an elections bill last month that would also essentially rewrite D.C.'s elections laws, including creating a photo ID requirement, banning same-day voter registration and restricting mail-in voting procedures.

“House Republicans have shown us that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to destroy the Democratic agenda … so everything is on the table in this election,” said Jamal Holtz, a lead statehood organizer with 51 for 51. “There’s been many attacks on D.C. by Republicans who sit in Congress, whether it’s control of the National Guard or how we spend our local dollars.”

Last push

Norton and D.C. officials said they are hopeful there is still time for one last push on several priorities, such as taking control of the D.C. National Guard and removing two long-standing federal budget riders. The riders have prohibited D.C. from using local funds to subsidize abortions for low-income women and from setting up a legal recreational marijuana industry to raise revenue.

Hoping Democrats in Congress would finally kill the riders, D.C. even held a hearing last year on legislation it prepared to allow D.C. to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana at dispensaries. Congress has for years prohibited the city from doing that even though D.C. voters opted to legalize possession of marijuana in a 2014 referendum. D.C. entrepreneurs instead have operated a gray-market “gifting” system that gives people marijuana if they buy other items such as apparel or pencils.

“We’re in an impossible situation that’s reminiscent of the Prohibition era, where the federal government prohibited alcoholic beverages, bootlegging was rampant, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the District today,” Mendelson said. “Congress prohibits us from regulating recreational marijuana, which is legal, and because we can’t regulate it, bootlegging is rampant.”

Perry said she was relieved that both the House and Senate appropriations bills did not include any riders restricting how D.C. could use its money, clearing the way for low-income women to access abortion and for the city to eliminate that gray-market marijuana industry. But only if Republicans don’t add the riders back, which they almost certainly intend to do.

Republicans have aggressively opposed allowing D.C. to use local funds to subsidize abortion, in the same way they oppose removing the federal Hyde amendment preventing federal taxpayer dollars from subsidizing abortion. In a statement decrying Senate Democrats’ proposed appropriations bill, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, also pointed to Democrats’ desire to allow D.C. to legalize the sale of marijuana as an example of a “radical” idea that Republicans would not support. Nineteen states allow nonmedical cannabis use in some fashion.

“If we are going to get full year bills during this Congress, Democrats must commit to a bipartisan framework that abandons poison pills” and “preserves legacy riders,” Shelby said earlier this month, ensuring an uphill climb for Democrats to successfully remove the D.C. riders.

A bill to give D.C. control of its National Guard faced a similar hurdle in the Senate last year after it didn’t make the cut in the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, which also needs Republican votes to pass because of the Senate filibuster. Senate Democrats’ push to support the bill could only go so far, as they couldn’t risk tanking the entire defense spending bill to insist on a D.C. priority that the GOP opposed.

Mendelson said the Defense Department’s denial of Bowser’s latest request to mobilize the D.C. Guard to aid in the humanitarian crisis of busloads of migrants arriving weekly in D.C. only strengthened the case for why D.C. should be able to have control of the Guard. He remained hopeful that the legislation still had one more chance to succeed this Congress.

“We need the National Guard to help. I think people somehow misunderstand what the needs are,” he said. “It’s not a question of money, it’s not a question of federal assistance — there just aren’t enough employees available for the nonprofits.”

Last but certainly not least in the eyes of D.C. officials, they’re hoping for a late-game revival of the statehood cause in the Senate. Holtz said that advocates have been pushing for another statehood hearing and a vote for the statehood bill in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Norton echoed. A spokeswoman for the committee said a second hearing is not on the schedule.

In Perry’s ideal world, Senate Democrats would deliver a “historic lame-duck session” and decide to hold a floor vote on statehood for the first time ever, regardless of whether they win or lose control of Congress in November. While Manchin’s opposition makes success unlikely even if Democrats remove the Senate filibuster, Norton said she wanted statehood to reach that milestone too — something she has been waiting to see for more than three decades.

“I just don’t want to let this moment go by, even if we lose” the vote, Norton said. “This really is a penultimate moment for me on statehood. Having gotten this far, I’d certainly like to see it go the full throttle.”

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