In-Depth: The District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) reintroduced this bill from the 116th Congress to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. When she introduced this legislation in the 116th Congress, Holmes Norton said:
“We are gratified by the overwhelming support from my Democratic colleagues as we seize this new moment for statehood and press our bill in the 116th Congress with unprecedented momentum. I am particularly grateful to Chairman Cummings for his support of H.R. 51 and his commitment to holding a hearing and markup in 2019, the first such House hearing or markup since 1993, when I got the first-ever House floor vote on it. A hearing and markup will provide a prime opportunity to inform and remind Americans that over 700,000 of their fellow citizens who live in the nation’s capital are denied their basic democratic rights.”
In a video before the committee hearing on this bill in the 116th Congress (the first hearing on D.C. statehood in the House in over 28 years), Del. Holmes Norton released a video in which she said:
“For 218 years, Washingtonians have lived in their nation’s capital – yet we are not equal. We pay the highest federal taxes per capita of any jurisdiction in the country, and our residents have served in all our country’s wars. But right now, the District of Columbia does not have full representation in the Senate or House, or the ability to govern ourselves without congressional interference. That’s wrong – and it needs to change. [This bill] would make DC’s 700,000 taxpaying residents equal to other Americans.”
Key Democratic leaders have expressed support for D.C. statehood. Upon this bill’s introduction in the 116th Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) strongly endorsed D.C. statehood. Similarly, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who cosponsored this bill in the 116th Congress, endorsed D.C. statehood in a Washington Post op-ed reversing his long-held position on the issue. Finally, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) released a sweeping voter rights proposal in March 2019 which included support for D.C. statehood.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser believes that Democratic control of the Senate could make D.C. statehood a policy priority for the Biden administration. In comments on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe” on January 6, 2021, she predicted that D.C. statehood “could become a 100-day priority, D.C. statehood, for our next president” should Democrats win the Senate, as they did when Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock won a pair of Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5, 2021.
Rep. Hoyer’s announcement of his support was significant, as he’d been the last Democratic lawmaker in the capital region to oppose full statehood for the District (the other holdout, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), announced his support in February 2019). Previously, Rep. Hoyer supported full voting rights, but not statehood, for the District. He argued that it would be too complicated to delineate state versus federal responsibilities if Congress were to create a state from most of what’s currently the District of Columbia.
In 2016, 86% of D.C. voters voted in favor of statehood. Maryland and Virginia residents have expressed concerns that if the District achieves statehood, it could impose a commuter tax on suburban residents who work in the capital.
Those who oppose D.C. statehood marshal a range of arguments to make their case. Firstly, they contend that it goes against the Founding Fathers’ intent given that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution establishes it as a district rather than a state. In Federalist 43, James Madison warned of the danger of bringing “imputation of awe or influence” onto the new national government by locating it within a state. He also advocated that the national government, not a state government, should have authority over the national capital.
Another Founder, Thomas Jefferson, considered the new nation’s future capital a matter of such great importance he traded away his opposition to Hamilton’s proposal that the federal government assume state debts in order to assure that the capital would be moved from New York to his own native Virginia in the Compromise of 1790. This ensured that the capital would be located in the South, away from financial interests in the Northeast — which both Jefferson and Madison wanted.
Additionally, opponents of D.C. statehood argue that it would require a constitutional amendment to change Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, so Congress can’t change the District’s status via simple legislation. To this point, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) argues that a sincere effort to grant D.C. statehood would need to be paired with a proposal to repeal the 23rd Amendment (which gives D.C. residents the right to vote for representatives in the Electoral College) and replace it with a 28th Amendment.
Opponents of D.C. statehood also note that all of what currently comprises the District of Columbia used to be part of Maryland, and advocate that the lands which aren't part of the federal government be retroceded (e.g. given back) to the state of Maryland or residents of the District be given voting rights in Maryland. Retrocession could prove problematic, as a constitutional amendment could be required to retrocede those portions of D.C. to Maryland if Maryland doesn't want to absorb those lands, and the 23rd Amendment would need to be repealed because the remaining parts of the District would still be entitled to Electoral College votes. On the other hand, Congress could stipulate that D.C. residents be treated as Maryland residents for the purpose of congressional representation without a constitutional amendment, although a repeal of the 23rd Amendment could be required in that case.
The Republican Party opposes D.C. statehood for reasons that are not only constitutional, but political, as granting the District statehood would likely net Democrats — who enjoy strong support in the District — two Senators and one voting representative. When the House in the 116th Congress appeared poised to approve this bill, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) dismissed the idea of statehood for D.C. as “full-bore socialism.”
The Trump White House issued a veto threat for this legislation in the 116th Congress, writing:
"This bill is unconstitutional because the retrocession of portions of the District of Columbia into a separate state would violate the 23rd Amendment. This Amendment, ratified in 1961, contemplates a District of the proportions then in effect as a basis for the allocation of presidential electors. If, as H.R. 51 proposes, the District were reduced to a small jurisdiction made up of essentially only Federal buildings, the 23rd Amendment would give the tiny population of individuals living within those borders the same voting power in the Electoral College as the smallest state in the country. The scheme proposed in H.R. 51 would likely also require Maryland to agree separately that a portion of the land it originally ceded to form the District could now become a separate State. Article IV, Section 3, of the Constitution requires a State's consent before a new State is formed from land within its borders. In addition, H.R. 51 would create an opportunity for a new State of Washington, D.C. to dominate the capital and render those who meet there beholden to its interests, rather than the interests of the Nation as a whole. As outlined in Federalist 43, the Framers feared that the seat of government confined to the jurisdiction of a single State would not be sufficiently independent and might, therefore, prefer local instead of national interests. Even though H.R. 51 contemplates continued congressional authority over the technical seat of government, its reduction of that area to such a small size would impose serious practical limitations on that authority. Because the new State would entirely surround the reserved capital region of certain Federal buildings and monuments, a State of Washington, D.C. could achieve outsized authority in some respects as compared to the other 50 States. For example, given its small size, the Federal capital would depend entirely on the new State of Washington, D.C. for most, if not all, of the necessary modern services, which directly implicates a concern that troubled the Framers. The constitutional vision of our Framers for our capital was sound. We should not seek to undermine that vision through unconstitutional means like H.R. 51."
In the 117th Congress, this legislation has 202 Democratic House cosponsors. Companion Senate legislation had yet to be introduced as of January 6, 2021.
In the 116th Congress, this legislation passed the House by a 232-180 vote with the support of 227 Democratic House cosponsors. All but one Democrat voted in favor of this bill, while 178 Republicans voted against it and 19 abstained. Its Senate companion in the 116th Congress, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), had 42 Senate cosponsors, all of whom caucused as Democrats. D.C. Statehood Coalition, the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), and others supported this legislation.
In the 115th Congress, this legislation had 181 Democratic House cosponsors. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Carper, had 30 Senate cosponsors, including 29 Democrats and one Independent. Neither bill received a committee vote last Congress.
Of Note: The D.C. municipal government has had certain powers devolved to it from Congress in 1973. The District of Columbia Home Rule Act reorganized D.C.’s government structure, provided a charter for local government in D.C., delegated some legislative powers to the local government, and implemented recommendations from the Commission on the Organization of the Government of the District of Columbia. This allowed D.C. to elect its own mayor and legislature.
The last time D.C. statehood was seriously considered in Congress in 1993, it was defeated by a large margin on the House floor. Nearly half the Democratic conference joined Republicans in voting against it. At the time, former high-ranking Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) argued against D.C. statehood, saying, “No citizen of Washington is chained to the pillars of the U.S. Capitol. They can leave any time they want.”
Since 1993, Democrats as a party have come to support D.C. statehood, with the party symbolically voting to endorse the idea in March 2019. Additionally, every Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed statehood.
Beyond the constitutional & partisan issues raised by the prospect of D.C. statehood, opponents of the statehood push also argue that it’s too reliant on federal funds to be a state, and that the city would be unable to responsibly manage itself as a state due to a history of lurid corruption scandals.
Among D.C.’s high-profile corruption scandals include several involving Mayor Marion Barry, of whom The Washington Post once wrote, “to understand the District of Columbia, one must understand Marion Barry.” Barry served three terms as D.C. mayor from 1979 to 1991, when he was caught on video using cocaine and sent to federal prison for six months. After his release, he was then re-elected to the D.C. Council for Ward 8 (one of the District’s grittiest areas) in 1992 and eventually re-elected as mayor in 1995 with 56% of the vote. Barry’s third mayoral term was marked by open talk of womanizing, drinking, and drug use. Several of his top aides were convicted of corruption, as well.
After declining to seek a fourth term, Barry later returned for a second stint on the council, which featured him pleading guilty to federal and local tax charges; his being unanimously stripped of committee assignments by other councilmembers after he was found to have steered contracts to his then-girlfriend; and Barry making controversial remarks about Asian-Americans, which he apologized for but used an anti-Polish slur in the process.
With regard to the questions of population and over reliance on federal funds (which are also arguments opponents of D.C. statehood cite in their opposition), it’s worth noting in response to these arguments that D.C. has more residents than either Vermont or Wyoming. Additionally, with regard to D.C.’s finances, 21 states relied more on federal funding as a percentage of their state budgets in comparison to the District in 2013.
Summary by Lorelei Yang (with Eric Revell)
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Xavier_Ascanio)