D.C. RESIDENTS and city officials overflowed a Senate hearing room this week to support the common-sense proposition that they have political rights like any other American citizen. It was the first congressional hearing in more than two decades on D.C. statehood, and it rightfully focused attention on this critical issue. But just two senators showed up, and only Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who called the hearing, stayed for the whole thing. President Obama, who has professed support for D.C. statehood, couldn’t be bothered to send a letter saying so.
So what now? It is clear that, no matter how much right is on the District’s side — even a foe of statehood, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), acknowledged, “D.C. residents suffer an injustice . . . by not having a vote” — the District is not going to become the 51st state anytime soon. “No chance of success in this chamber and . . . dead on arrival in the House” was Mr. Coburn’s assessment, and few would disagree. Republicans will not entertain a measure that would lead to the addition of a Democratic vote in the House and two Democratic senators. That’s the political reality.
We have not abandoned our support for change, nor our regard for how Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and other advocates have championed the cause unflaggingly. But we think the time has come for new thinking on how to right the great historical wrong that makes D.C. residents second-class citizens. We would urge Mr. Obama to establish a commission, ideally with Congress, to take a fresh look at this old issue with the goal of finding a just and workable solution.
Statehood is far from the only idea that has surfaced in the past. Proposals have included a constitutional amendment to give the city full congressional representation; retrocession of most of the District to Maryland; and House action to give the District at least a representative in that chamber. An inventive variation of the latter proposal by then-Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) would have balanced a House vote for the District with an extra seat for Utah, which would have likely gone to a Republican. The proposal got bipartisan House approval in 2007 but couldn’t overcome obstacles in the Senate. His idea, like all the others, faded away.
Are any of these worth another look? Are there, as Mr. Carper, a serious-minded ally of the District, asked at Monday’s hearing, viable solutions short of statehood? We know that privately some advocates of statehood have discussed these questions and the pros and cons of openly discussing compromise. Some have entertained the idea that the District be required to choose a senator from each party, or that it be given only one senator.
Ultimately the District may decide that nothing short of statehood is acceptable. But the questions are worth exploring. A broad-based panel of the best legal, governmental and political minds, operating under a strict deadline, could elevate debate on this topic. It might come up with new approaches. It almost certainly would help the American public to understand how wrong it is that 650,000 of their fellow countrymen and women pay taxes, fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship and serve their country but are without a vote in Congress.
With two years left in office, Mr. Obama has time to make a difference for this critical matter of civil rights.