It passed along party lines, 232 to 180, with Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Democrat from a conservative district in Minnesota, the only one in the chamber to break ranks and join the Republicans in opposition.
“I was born without representation, but I swear — I will not die without representation,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a Democrat and a fifth-generation Washingtonian, said shortly after the vote.
But the issue has ramifications far beyond whether the District, a city of more than 705,000 residents, should have two voting senators and a House member to represent their interests in the gleaming white marble Capitol that sits at the heart of their city.
D.C. residents’ lack of autonomy has been on abundant display in the recent standoff between Bowser and President Trump over how to handle the largely peaceful protests that erupted after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Bowser could not prevent federal troops from being deployed on D.C. streets.
The question of statehood for the nation’s capital is part of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. More than a half-century ago, Washington became the only large city in the country whose largest share of its population was black or African American.
At a time when residents were denied even the right to vote for their own mayor — who was federally appointed — President Lyndon B. Johnson advocated unsuccessfully for “home rule,” saying: “Remember, when people feel mistreated and they feel injustices, and when they have to move from their homes and they have no jobs, and they have no vote, and they have no voice — well, there is not one place to go if you can’t go up.” The District of Columbia Home Rule Act did not pass until nearly a year after Johnson’s death in 1973.
The contempt that some modern-day Republicans feel for the District — usually expressed in stereotypes of the vibrant city as a swamp of lobbyists and bureaucrats — was voiced on Thursday by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Dismissing the argument that the D.C. population is larger than those of some states, Cotton said: “Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state.”
Wyoming is an interesting example. Nearly half of Wyoming’s territory is federal acreage — a much higher proportion than in the District (less than one-third). And among states, Wyoming ranks top in the nation when it comes to the percentage of its workforce employed by federal or local governments.
Which makes you wonder what, precisely, is the senator’s criterion for deeming a group of people “well-rounded.”
The outcome of Friday’s vote reflects more than the politics of this moment.
The House Democratic caucus is significantly more diverse and liberal than it was in 1993, and Washington itself is a far different city. Then, it was on the brink of fiscal collapse, with a dysfunctional public school system. The city was caught in a crack cocaine epidemic and was known as the nation’s “murder capital.” Memories of the 1990 drug arrest of Mayor Marion Barry were still fresh.
The District’s progress owes much to a succession of competent and effective mayors, of whom Bowser is only the latest.
It would have been difficult to imagine a House vote in favor of statehood just a few years ago, but, despite Friday’s wide margin, the effort still has a long way to go.
Though the measure has 40 Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said it will not reach the floor. Even if Democrats win control in November, as looks increasingly possible, it’s unclear that statehood could garner the 60 votes it would need to overcome a filibuster.
Statehood is all but impossible without presidential support. Trump has said he is adamantly opposed, as such a move would likely mean two more Democratic senators. Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has indicated that he favors D.C. statehood, though it remains to be seen how highly he prioritizes the issue.
Still, it has been 230 years since the District of Columbia was established as the capital of a young democratic republic. The country is long overdue in granting full rights of citizenship to those who live there.