The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Democratic control of the House means for D.C. statehood

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), center, listens to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), left, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at right, during a news conference on the Death with Dignity Act at the Cannon House Office Building in 2017.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), center, listens to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), left, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at right, during a news conference on the Death with Dignity Act at the Cannon House Office Building in 2017. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Statehood for the District is likely to remain out of reach as long as Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, despite Democratic control of the House in the new Congress.

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting representative, has a long list of bills, from the pragmatic to the symbolic, that she says could inch the District closer to equality with the states.

Norton, a Democrat, wants to eliminate congressional power to negate laws passed by the D.C. Council, allow the District to prosecute local crimes and give the mayor the authority to deploy the District’s National Guard.

If the District were treated like a state, she argues, the ceiling of the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress would feature the D.C. seal, and U.S. flags in the District would be flown at half-staff when the mayor dies, as they do in states when governors die. U.S. District Court judges, the U.S. attorney and U.S. marshals for the District would be required to live here.

Also, because all states are represented by two statues in the Capitol, she would like to see the city’s Frederick Douglass joined in Statuary Hall by one of Pierre L’Enfant, which stands in One Judiciary Square.

None of these bills has gotten even so much as a vote during Norton’s nearly three-decade tenure, but she said the House could act in the 116th Congress.

“The Democratic-controlled Congress means everything to the District of Columbia,” she said. “I would dare say it means more to the District of Columbia than any [state] in the United States.”

The District has long struggled to keep Republican members of the House and Senate from interfering with its laws, especially since the city’s liberal lawmakers regularly pass measures conservative members can’t abide, such as publicly subsidized abortion for low-income women, legal marijuana and assisted suicide.

Last year, Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chaired the House Oversight Committee with jurisdiction over the District, even floated requiring all federal agencies in the District to relocate outside the metropolitan area.

Advocates for D.C. autonomy are confident that Democratic control of the House could finally result in some progress, while acknowledging that the GOP-controlled Senate presents a bigger challenge.

When the 116th Congress convenes in the first week of January, Norton said she will introduce a statehood resolution, H.R. 51, for the 51st state. As of Friday, it had a record 152 sponsors, all Democrats.

Key Democratic leaders say they will work to advance the measure.

Majority Leader-elect Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who will decide with the likely next speaker, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), which bills go to the floor, said he wouldn’t stop it.

The statement is welcome news to D.C. advocates because Hoyer is the only House member from the capital region who has not co-sponsored the statehood legislation.

“Certainly, if it gets out of committee, I’m going to put it on the floor,” Hoyer said in a recent interview.

He did not say whether he would vote for the measure, however.

Maryland and Virginia residents have expressed concern that if the District achieves statehood, it could impose a commuter tax on suburbanites who work in the nation’s capital.

“I can support statehood,” Hoyer said, “but delineating state responsibility, federal responsibility, cordoning off the federal district or something of that nature, I think it’s complicated from that standpoint. However, I think it’s inexcusable and a blot on our democracy that 700,000 of our citizens don’t have full voting rights.”

Every time Democrats control the House, Norton and four other delegates — from American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — are allowed to vote with the full House when amendments are considered.

However, even this vote is largely symbolic because if their votes swing the result, another vote is taken without them. This happens about once in each two-year session.

Before Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton was fiery, sharp — and victorious

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he would work to make sure statehood — and various equality bills — pass procedural hurdles in committee.

“It is long past time that we make D.C. the 51st state,” he said in a statement. “We must protect the right to vote for everyone, including D.C. residents. This is a core value of our democracy. Voting helps us control our own destiny and improve the lives of our children, and lives of generations yet unborn.”

A spokesman for Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who will be the ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

While the minority party has limited power in the House, in past sessions, Jordan, a Freedom Caucus stalwart, sponsored bills that would wipe out the District’s gun laws and define marriage for legal purposes in the city as the union of a man and a woman.

The one time the House voted on statehood, in 1993, it failed 277 to 153, with support from only 60 percent of Democrats and one Republican.

Arguments against statehood usually come from strict constitutionalists who believe the federal government should have complete control of the city where the capital lies and Republican partisans who believe District residents would elect Democrats to Congress if given the chance.

But Bo Shuff, executive director of the statehood advocacy group DC Vote, noted Alaska and Hawaii flipped political allegiances once they entered the union.

Shuff’s group is preparing for its annual lobby day and working to convince new members of Congress to support statehood, which he framed as a civil rights issue.

Lawmakers concerned about the disenfranchisement of voters in Georgia and on Native American reservations in North Dakota should also worry about “500,000-plus registered voters in D.C. who are regularly disenfranchised,” Shuff said.

DC Vote also has a new strategy to clarify the difference between a vibrant city and Capitol Hill using the hashtag #Congress­IsntDC.

When Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “One disappointment about DC is the gossip that masquerades as ‘reporting,’ ” Shuff, using the DC Vote account, said he had to respond.

“One disappointment about Congress are the Members who label ‘politics’ as DC. 700,000 residents here, most don’t work for government, great local journalists,” he tweeted.

So far he has yet to call out any incoming members of the Senate, where just 29 Democrats and one Independent support the statehood bill. He estimates the measure could pass both chambers and land on a supportive president’s desk in 2023.

“This is part of a longer-term strategy,” he said.