The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Senate committee, D.C. statehood is debated anew

With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, activists say they are in their strongest position yet to make D.C. the 51st state. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

D.C. statehood proponents sought Tuesday to counter arguments that the idea is unconstitutional, urging a Senate committee to fulfill America’s founding principle of no taxation without representation in the nation’s capital.

“This lack of representation for the residents of the city that serves as a beacon of freedom and democracy around the world is a stunning contradiction,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The nearly three-hour hearing focused largely on constitutional arguments for and against statehood, with proponents including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) declaring that the need for nearly 700,000 people to be able to elect voting members of Congress should outweigh opponents’ practical or legal arguments.

It was the first Senate committee hearing on statehood since 2014. The committee did not bring up the bill for a vote that year, but advocates are optimistic that it may get one this year, even as its prospects are low in the full Senate.

Despite statehood’s passage through the House and full backing from President Biden, proponents have yet to secure the support of even all Senate Democrats. And the opposition of Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to eliminating the filibuster places the bill’s future in more doubt.

D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to the center of the national Democratic agenda

Kicking off the hearing Tuesday, Democrats brought in former senator Joe Lieberman (Conn.) to offer an appeal to bipartisanship on statehood — a long-shot bid because Republicans have branded the issue a partisan attempt to solidify Democratic control of the Senate. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), for ­example, called it a “naked power grab” on Tuesday.

A political independent who served in office for 24 years, Lieberman long pushed for D.C. voting rights and introduced a D.C. statehood bill in his final weeks in the Senate. In his opening remarks, the former vice-presidential nominee called arguments against statehood “legalistic disputations and ultimately excuses for something that is inexcusable.”

He urged Republicans to set aside concerns that the District would elect two Democratic senators, saying Congress shouldn’t “condition the enjoyment of constitutional rights on political party membership, any more than Congress would condition access to constitutional rights on citizens’ race or gender or sexual orientation.”

Like they had during the House hearing this spring, Democrats focused on the underlying civil rights case for statehood. Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, said D.C. has watched from the sidelines during every major advancement in voting rights at the federal level, ranging from suffrage for women to the Voting Rights Act that gave teeth to the 14th and 15th amendments extending voting rights to African Americans.

D.C. statehood, he said, “is one of the last pieces of that important shift in how we govern this nation.”

But Senate Republicans stood firm in arguing that statehood was unconstitutional for a number of reasons — chief among them the 23rd Amendment, which gave D.C. residents three electoral votes for president in the 1960s.

D.C. statehood could cost more than $1 billion. City officials aren’t fazed.

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act — led in the Senate by Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) — would shrink the federal district to a two-mile enclave, while the rest would become the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. The bill includes a provision calling for expedited repeal of the 23rd Amendment, while also repealing the amendment’s enabling statute so that the few residents who live in the 2-square-mile federal enclave would not have three electoral votes.

Derek T. Muller, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, said such provisions were insufficient. “There is no guarantee of the repeal of the 23rd Amendment. The bill simply hopes that it will happen,” he said.

Bowser argued that attempts to use the Constitution to oppose statehood ignore that the “second-class status of D.C. residents is clearly an anomaly of the Constitution, not a feature of it.” She pointed specifically to arguments about the 23rd Amendment, suggesting they amounted to a logical fallacy.

“It is particularly contradictory that the 23rd Amendment, which was passed to expand democracy to taxpaying D.C. residents, is now being held up as the main barrier to expanding constitutional rights in the District,” Bowser said.

Some Republicans, including the party’s ranking committee member, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), argued that D.C.’s special status as a federal district makes it “completely different” from territories that have been admitted as new states, and he pushed for retrocession to Maryland instead.

Roger Pilon, a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute and witness for the Republicans, said Maryland ceded the federal government the land that became D.C. for the express purpose of creating a federal district and that any attempt to make it a state would require Maryland’s permission even today.

The Democrats’ constitutional expert, University of Michigan Law School professor Richard Primus, compared Pilon’s argument to a friend gifting you a bicycle to ride to work but forbidding you from ever using it for any other purpose without permission. He said nothing in the Constitution forbids statehood.

Carper riffed on the upcoming Fourth of July holiday as he told his GOP colleagues, “The residents of the District of Columbia have no interest in waging a war of independence,” he said. “They just want to be treated fairly and justly.”

Will D.C. become a state? Explaining the hurdles to statehood.