Many things contributed to the breakdown in security, but the legal limbo of the District of Columbia clearly hampered the ability of the city to suppress violence within its borders. The District is not a state, of course, but rather a federal district, lacking congressional representation and placed — per the Constitution’s “enclave clause” — under congressional authority. The District’s National Guard unit therefore falls under the president’s command. A presidential executive order delegates this supervisory authority to the secretary of defense. The District’s mayor therefore — unlike any governor — must ask the Defense Department, acting on behalf of the president, to deploy the National Guard against rioters.
As many legal observers have noted, this hodgepodge of laws produces numerous problems. For one, the president can deploy the National Guard in the District without the need for congressional approval under the Insurrection Act. In other words, the president can unilaterally use the National Guard to displace civilian policing in the District. That explains how Trump was able to mobilize Guard troops from the District and other states last June, deploying armored trucks and military helicopters against peaceful protesters and D.C. residents. (The president can also seize control of the city’s police force, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine reminded the city council in the days before the riot.)
This limits the District’s mayor’s ability to direct the D.C. National Guard. With more authority, Bowser said after the riot, “we could be nimble. … If we find out during the course of the response that that needs to change dramatically, then I as mayor/governor would make that determination.” Nor can other governors send their Guard into the District at the mayor’s request — as they can in response to invitations from other governors.
The delay in surging troops to help the Capitol Police cost lives. As right-wing rioters overwhelmed Capitol Police, killing an officer and badly injuring others, the District dispatched police officers — many of them D.C. residents — and at least 58 of them were injured, too. They were beaten and clubbed defending a building in which many had no voting representation. The costs could have been even higher. Some rioters appeared intent on taking members of Congress hostage, and they came alarmingly close to reaching Senate and House members.
D.C. statehood would therefore not only represent progress for the cause of democratic representation; it would also make it easier to prevent something like the travesty of last week from happening again. A bill that would make the District a state, H.R. 51, is pending before Congress. It cleared the House last session and has more than 200 co-sponsors and support from President-elect Joe Biden and nearly all Democratic senators. Since Democrats hold a slim majority and Republicans uniformly oppose the bill, passage would require flipping the last four holdouts: Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Angus King (Maine) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and then a Senate rules change, exempting statehood bills from the cloture vote needed to override the filibuster, thus allowing the bill to pass by simple majority. (The Senate made similar rules changes for federal judicial nominations in 2013 and 2017.) Should those two things happen — and Manchin said after the riot he has not ruled out statehood — the event may have changed the political calculus. The bill could pass in Biden’s first 100 days, something Bowser has lobbied for.
Months ago, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) mockingly asked: “Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor?” Last Wednesday, Bowser’s attempts to dispatch District guard troops and police officers to defend Congress, and the heroism of these District service members, decisively refuted Cotton’s claims. The mayor and these troops and officers defended Congress not out of partisan opposition to the president but out of an oath-bound duty to protect the Constitution. After Wednesday, one cannot in good conscience claim local Guard members and police officers will not protect the Capitol.
Amid reports that right-wing groups plan to descend on Washington next week for the inauguration, as many as 15,000 National Guard members could be deployed there. With luck, that will be enough to deter or quell violence. But it does nothing to solve the problems with the chain of National Guard command on view last week.
The denial of voting rights to residents of the District of Columbia is a disgrace in itself — but last week, it also endangered national security.