The legislation — which would shrink the seat of the federal government to a two-square-mile enclave and designate the District’s other 66 square miles the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — has no immediate prospects of enactment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t allow debate on the bill, and the White House vowed to veto it if given the chance. Even if it were enacted, a court challenge on constitutional grounds would be likely.
But Friday’s debate and vote on H.R. 51 demonstrated how far the issue has come in recent years. More and more Americans recognize that District residents should be represented in Congress and have local control. They see this for the civil rights issue it is. It will not go away until there is some resolution to the centuries-old problem.
“Congress has two choices,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). “It can continue to exercise undemocratic, autocratic authority over the 705,000 American citizens who reside in our nation’s capital, treating them, in the words of Frederick Douglass as ‘aliens, not citizens, but subjects.’ Or Congress can live up to this nation’s promise and ideals and pass H.R. 51.” A poignant footnote to her clarion call: She could not vote on legislation she has relentlessly championed since joining the House in 1991.
D.C.’s population is larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont; it pays more federal taxes than 22 states; its budget is bigger than those of 12 states; its Triple-A bond rating is higher than those of 35 states; and its sons and daughters willingly go off to serve and fight for their country. Yet it has no voice in Congress. Its conduct of municipal affairs — as has been made painfully clear in recent weeks when the Trump administration shortchanged D.C.’s effort to deal with covid-19 and unleashed federal troops against peaceful protesters — is subject to the whims of those who sit in the White House and Congress.
Republicans framed statehood as a blatant power grab, a way to bolster Democratic power in Congress. Since when is party affiliation relevant to American citizens securing their rights? Clearly, Republicans don’t view the residents of D.C. as “real Americans.” How else to explain Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s comments that Wyoming, while less populous than the District, is more deserving of representation because it is a “well-rounded working class state” with more people in jobs like mining and logging? In truth, Wyoming tops the nation when it comes to states with high numbers of people working at all levels of government.
If there is any distinction to be made, it is that about 45 percent of D.C. residents are black, a higher share than in any state. That puts the GOP’s opposition to giving the District a voice in Congress squarely in line with its efforts to disenfranchise black people across the country as a way to hold on to power. Hopefully, voters in November will provide a rebuke to that cynical and un-American strategy.