D.C. residents and city lawmakers packed a Senate hearing Monday for their first chance in two decades to make the case that the nation’s capital should be the 51st state.
They came prepared with statistics: $4 billion in federal income taxes are paid annually by city residents. They came with constitutional theories: D.C. residents are unfairly “subjugated” without a voting member of Congress. And they came with stacks of testimony often built around one word to describe the District’s condition. When it comes to full democracy, the rights of D.C. residents are “denied,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
From the dais, however, there wasn’t much interest. Only two senators attended the first hearing on D.C. statehood in almost 21 years. Those two were Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who introduced the bill, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who called the whole exercise a waste of time. Coburn then promptly left after little more than a half hour.
Carper’s exact reasoning for calling the unusual hearing — and on a day that many members of his committee remained in their districts — remained unclear.
Speaking to reporters, Carper said D.C. statehood had not been one of his priorities when he took over as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee two years ago, but he had come to find it important issue and succeeded in squeezing in time to “have this important discussion.”
In prepared remarks, Carper said his goal was to restart a dialogue about how to afford the District’s 645,000 residents elected representatives to Congress.
D.C. residents “work, study, raise families and start businesses here, just like people do in all 50 states — and they serve in the military,” Carper said, noting that D.C.’s population is larger than the states of Vermont or Wyoming. “Yet when it comes to having a voice in Congress, these men and women really do not count — at least not in the same way.”
Sitting beside Carper was Coburn, the committee’s ranking Republican.
“D.C. residents suffer an injustice, I agree, by not having a vote,” Coburn said, but he blasted the idea that Congress could move forward on statehood without numerous other constitutional and operational changes as a “legal and political absurdity” that has “no chance of passage.”
Coburn cast the entire hearing as a charade for being called just weeks before the November midterm elections, when there was no chance it would be taken seriously. He also questioned why President Obama had sent no representative. Asked about D.C. statehood last year, Obama said, “I’m for it.” But he did not respond to a D.C. Council request last week to restate his support for the hearing.
There was little doubt that D.C. statehood activists took the day seriously. Early Monday morning, D.C. veterans delivered flags with 51 stars to offices of committee members and made pleas, often to aides, for the same rights enjoyed by others who have served.
That message was carried through in the afternoon by hundreds who responded to the call of D.C. Vote, the city’s main conduit for lobbying for statehood, to attend Carper’s hearing. An overflow crowd of hundreds spilled into hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
One of those who testified was Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He cast the lack of voting representation as putting D.C. residents on par with African Americans in the South were prior to voting rights legislation.
“Until D.C. residents have a vote in Congress, they will not be much better off than African Americans in the South were prior to . . . when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law,” Henderson said. “Until then, the efforts of the civil rights movement will remain incomplete.”
Nineteen fellow Senate Democrats have signed on to Carper’s bill — only a fraction of the number that advocates would likely need to pass a bill through the Democratic-controlled chamber.
Kimberly Perry, executive director of D.C. Vote, said outside the hearing room that she was happy for the chance to broaden the number of people who might learn about the District’s struggle.
“This is not just symbolic,” she said. “It’s a call to the rest of the nation,” Perry said.