Advocates and Democratic lawmakers painted D.C. statehood as a matter of moral urgency and racial justice in a House hearing Monday, pushing back against Republican arguments that the cause is purely partisan and unconstitutional.
Now in control of the Senate and White House, as well as the House, Democrats are framing the statehood issue as a central part of their voting rights platform.
The bill still faces significant hurdles in the Senate, where the filibuster process means passage would require the all-but-impossible support of at least 10 Republicans. A number of Democratic senators are pushing various filibuster reform proposals, however, including a return to the “talking filibuster” or creating a filibuster carve-out for voting-rights legislation.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was the first to offer testimony. She sought to counter House Republicans’ argument that statehood was a Democratic “power grab” intended to cement the party’s control of Congress. More than 700,000 people live in the District — a population greater than Wyoming and Vermont.
Tracing the history of statehood efforts, Bowser said the growth of the city’s Black population historically contributed to the refusal of White lawmakers to grant full voting rights to residents, with some referring to Washington’s “Negro problem.”
Congress, Bowser said, has the ability “to right the wrong that happened 220 years ago,” when the District of Columbia Organic Act gave Congress oversight of the city and said its residents could not vote in federal elections.
“The truth is, over 220 years we’ve had various experiences — of suffrage for Black men, to all of it being stripped away, to having appointed officials, to the situation where we are now, which is limited home rule,” Bowser said. “What we know is that we don’t have representation here in this House. . . . This is anti-democratic, and it’s un-American, and it has to be fixed now.”
Norton highlighted her own ancestors’ history in her plea to colleagues for support, noting that her great-grandfather “as a slave, walked away from a plantation in Virginia and made his way to D.C.” — where her family has “lived without equal representation for almost two centuries,” she said.
Her bill would shrink the federal district to a two-square-mile enclave of federal buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House, while making the rest of the city the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — honoring abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Republicans centered their opposition on constitutional grounds, saying they believed the Constitution envisioned the District as the seat of the U.S. government and never intended for it to be a state.
But their opposition also veered into arguments about why they believe D.C. does not deserve statehood.
Some Republicans, including Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.) and Jody Hice (Ga.), noted the District’s lack of airports or a landfill, and its relative lack of car dealerships.
They questioned, as other GOP lawmakers have in the past, how the District could succeed as a state without large agricultural, manufacturing and mining sectors in its economy.
“They have no source of income,” Norman said, discounting the various ways that hundreds of thousands of city residents make a living, both inside and outside government. “In South Carolina, we have farming. In South Carolina, we have mining. The new State of Washington will have none of that.”
Bowser asked Republicans at one point not to discount Washington’s significant hospitality, sports and entertainment industries, while also stressing throughout the hearing that D.C. pays more federal taxes than most states.
It’s not a local issue anymore: D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to center of national Democratic agenda
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional law professor who has pushed for statehood since the 1990s, at one point grew exasperated with the Republican arguments.
“You are constantly trying to create a political and ideological test for admission to the union,” Raskin said. “The question is, are these taxpaying, draftable American citizens . . . deserving of equal rights? Of course they are.”
Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation called as a witness by Republicans, focused his testimony on the constitutional challenges to statehood.
The creation of the federal district is enshrined in the Constitution, which says “Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square).”
Smith argued the founders did not intend residents of the District to have the same voting rights as those in other states because of their proximity to the Capitol. Additionally, he said, the founders intended that the federal government, not state actors, would have the authority to call in federal police to protect the streets of the nation’s capital.
But Norton stressed Thursday that her bill does not eliminate the federal district, only changes its borders.
The federal government, she said, would still exercise its authority over the much smaller federal enclave that her bill would create. She also stressed that her bill seeks to pressure Congress to expedite repeal of the 23rd Amendment, which gives three electoral votes to the federal district. Republicans say the existence of the amendment is an insurmountable hurdle for statehood.
D.C.’s interim chief financial officer, Fitzroy Lee, noted the District’s Triple-A credit rating in arguing that the city was financially prepared for statehood, though he acknowledged important decisions have yet to be made about how certain state-level departments would operate.
And Harry Wingo, a military veteran who lives in the city, posed the following question to lawmakers: “How can you ask D.C. veterans to keep carrying the burden of disenfranchisement when we have shouldered the burden of defending our country?”
America’s Racial Reckoning: What you need to know
Full coverage: Race & Reckoning
Demographic changes: How the racial makeup of where you live has changed since 1990
Newsletter: Subscribe to About US to read the latest on race and identity
George Floyd’s America: Examining systemic racism through the lens of his life