The first U.S. House hearing on D.C. statehood in a generation ended just as it began: with the nation’s capital no closer to becoming the 51st state.
But that didn’t stop D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) from declaring success in their effort to build momentum for legislation that will someday make the District a state.
“I promised the people of the District of Columbia that we were always going to be in the position to be ready when the political winds aligned with each other,” Bowser said after her first-ever testimony before Congress.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Thursday on legislation introduced by Norton that would shrink the seat of the federal government to a two-square-mile enclave, encompassing the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings. The rest of the District would become known as the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.
At the hearing, Republicans argued the District is too corrupt and financially dependent on the federal government to be a state.
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the committee, moved to subpoena D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D), who is the target of a federal grand jury probe into his official actions and his private consulting business.
“We cannot ignore the elephant in the room,” Jordan said. “The District government currently faces serious allegations of misconduct.”
Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said the allegations against Evans have nothing to do with statehood, sounding off against Jordan’s state.
“Certainly officials in Ohio have been the subject of multiple political scandals for many years,” she said. “But no one is suggesting that Ohio ought to lose its status.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Jeffrey S. DeWitt, the District’s chief financial officer, pushed back on claims that the city is struggling financially by citing its AAA bond rating, $28.4 billion in annual tax receipts and $15.5 billion budget. The mayor noted that the city’s population of more than 700,000 — more than the states of Vermont and Wyoming — is projected to keep growing.
District officials said transition issues would have to be negotiated between the D.C. and federal governments.
For example, the legislation is silent on how the District would disentangle itself from the federal government, which pays more than $1 billion annually to fund Medicaid and much of the city’s criminal justice system — including the courts, prison services and supervision of offenders released into the community.
None of that seemed to matter to hundreds of statehood supporters wearing shirts emblazoned with “Statehood” or the District flag who formed a line that snaked down the hallways and around corners of the Rayburn House Office Building.
A crowd gathered outside in nearby Spirit of Justice Park and watched the proceedings live on a large video screen.
“It’s wrong,” said Jacqui Lieberman, 58, of Cleveland Park. “I pay my taxes. I send my kids to school. Why shouldn’t I have a representative in Congress?”
For a historically African American city to lack a vote in Congress, she added, “It’s clear racism.”
Statehood supporters are optimistic they can win a House floor vote in the majority-Democratic chamber but acknowledge the legislation has no chance in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said making the District a state would give Democrats an undue advantage because the city’s diverse and politically liberal electorate is likely to elect two Democratic senators, increasing the party’s influence.
A Gallup poll released in July found a clear majority of Americans — 64 percent — do not think the nation’s capital should attain statehood, compared with 29 percent who support the idea.
Senate Republicans are united in opposing statehood for the District, a move that some say would violate the intention of the framers of the Constitution. Both sides agree if the bill were ever to pass both chambers it would face a legal challenge that would probably reach the Supreme Court.
Opposition to the bill prompted one of the sharpest exchanges of the hearing, between Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a statehood supporter, and Roger Pilon, a constitutional scholar from the libertarian Cato Institute, testifying for the opposition.
“I fear that the party of Lincoln that led us to the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendment, that won the Civil War, is increasingly sounding like the party of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis,” Connolly said. “When they say it’s not about race and partisanship, you can be sure it’s about race and partisanship.”
Pilon responded there are partisan elements to the debate but said, “This is not about race.” He urged Connolly to withdraw the comment.
“Never!” Connolly said, spurring a roar of applause.
Presidential candidates and other Democrats took notice of the hearing, the first in the House since 1993. The Senate held a statehood hearing five years ago.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) tweeted about it, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) stopped by, as did Reps. Jennifer Wexton (Va.) and Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the House majority leader.
Hoyer, who reversed his long-held opposition to statehood in May, addressed the hearing and quoted the namesake of the would-be state, Frederick Douglass.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” he said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said the disenfranchisement of D.C. residents “upholds the injustices of slavery.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told Bowser she wanted one of the American flags that feature 51 stars, which the city hung from lampposts along Pennsylvania Avenue this week.
As staff held up the flag in the hearing, Norton said, “See, you can’t even tell the difference. What’s the harm?”
Every D.C. Council member — except for Evans and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) — was at the hearing in the audience behind Bowser.
“All the members are here, except the guy we want to be here?” Jordan asked Mendelson, referring to Evans.
Jordan and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) noted that the proposed boundaries for the new state included the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, which leases its building from the federal government. They wanted to know why the Trump property would be part of the state and not part of the federal enclave.
“There are federal properties in Maryland, in Virginia and in states across the country,” Bowser said, adding that the Hotel Monaco in Penn Quarter also leases space from the federal government and would be inside the state boundary.
Jordan asked Mendelson if the city put the Trump hotel inside the proposed state boundaries because it wants the tax revenue.
“That’s kind of a crass way to put it, but yeah,” Mendelson said.
Massie said the boundaries could force congressional staffers to park outside the downsized capital, giving the new state too much leverage over the federal government.
“This is the ridiculousness you get into when you try to draw a federal city into a teacup,” he said.