House votes to grant statehood to District of Columbia

Support for statehood has been bolstered by recent civil unrest.

June 26, 2020, 3:15 PM

The House of Representatives made history Friday, passing for the first time legislation that would grant statehood to the District of Columbia.

The bill passed along party lines, 232-180.

Though the bill is not expected to pass in the Senate and become law, the House vote marks an important milestone for those who say the district's more than 700,000 citizens have been disenfranchised for too long.

"The United States is the only Democratic country that denies both voting rights in its national legislature and local autonomy to the residents of its nation's capital," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s non-voting delegate to the House, during debate on the House floor.

Norton noted the district pays more federal taxes per capita and more federal taxes in total than 22 states. Its population is larger than those of Wyoming and Vermont.

Rep. Jody Hice, R.-Ga., expressed objection to the bill, saying the Founding Fathers debated making D.C. a state and rejected the idea.

"As James Madison expressed himself in Federalist 43, if the nation's capital city was situated in a state, the federal government could be subjected to undue influence by that state," Hice said.

"What this is really all about, is an attempt to get two more Democratic senators."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D.-N.Y., countered Hice, saying "the question for Republicans are these. Do they truly believe in the taxation without representation? Do you truly believe in states' rights? Do you truly believe in believe the federal government should stay out of local affairs? If you do, then join us, and act on these beliefs today."

Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Republicans shouldn't block the vote because D.C. representatives would be Demcorats.

"That shouldn't be how we have enfranchisement in our country, what's the nature of the vote," Pelosi, D.-Calif., said at a press conference at the Capitol Friday morning.

"The fact is, people in the District of Columbia pay taxes, fight our wars, risk their lives for our democracy, and yet in this state, in this place, they have no vote in the House or the Senate about whether we go to war and how those taxes are exacted and how it's all played," said Pelosi.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also weighed in at a press conference Thursday, saying that while residents were born in the district without a vote, they "will not die here without a vote."

"Let’s fight back against the cries that we are too liberal or too Black or too many Democrats," she said, calling on Democrats to take the vote again within the first 100 days of the new administration if Democrats win control of the White House.

While the bill is unlikely to become law given Republican control of the Senate, Democrats urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider the legislation once the House takes action.

The outlook for the legislation also looks grim at the executive level. In an interview with the New York Post last month, President Donald Trump indicated that he would veto the legislation if it reached the Oval Office, saying that the district "will never be a state."

"You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic -- Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen," he said at the time.

On Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer vehemently pushed back on the notion of bringing assumed partisanship into the discussion.

"Alaska and Hawaii were introduced into the Union in the same year, and almost everybody in Washington believed that Alaska would be a Democratic state, and they believed that Hawaii would be a Republican state -- the opposite is true," Hoyer said.

"The constitutional framers, the Federalist Papers, nobody thought that states would be admitted on the basis of their politics, rather they would be admitted on the basic premise of their citizenship as Americans, and to consider other non-germane items in casting your vote is un-American," he added.

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks as DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi listen during a news conference on District of Columbia statehood June 25, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks as DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi listen during a news conference on District of Columbia statehood June 25, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The bill has garnered 220 cosponsors and was crafted by Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is in her 15th term representing the district. The legislation was aptly assigned the bill number H.R. 51, and would admit the state of "Washington, Douglass Commonwealth," as the union’s 51st state, drawing its new name from President George Washington, a Virginian, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who was from Maryland.

The boundaries of the proposed new state would encompass the district’s residential and business areas, but would exclude the federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the United States Supreme Court Building and the federal executive, legislative and judicial office buildings that are near the National Mall and the Capitol. Those excluded areas would then serve as the District of Columbia and would remain under federal oversight.

Hoyer also recently said that leaders decided to put the measure on the floor after the district was treated as a territory in the CARES Act, which provided relief from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as after federal troops were deployed to crack down on protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The dual crises facing the nation were compounded in the nation’s capital where people of color comprise the majority of the population.

"If D.C. were a state, it could not be shortchanged as it was under the CARES Act and its residents would be protected from the kind of civil rights violations we saw in Lafayette Square, all for the purpose of a photo op," Hoyer, D-Md., recently argued. "This is not just an issue of local governance and fairness. It is a major civil rights issue as well."

D.C.’s non-voting "shadow senator" Paul Strauss echoed those sentiments in an interview with ABC News. Strauss also noted that the now-infamous moment in which police, reinforced by National Guard troops, forcefully pushed back protesters outside the White House earlier this month in an effort to clear a way for Trump to visit a nearby historic church, created heightened urgency for statehood support while putting a spotlight on the district’s lack of representational autonomy.

PHOTO: Police disperse protesters near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continued.
Police disperse protesters near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continued.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

"The difference between Washington state, where the President can tweet about wanting to send in troops, and Washington, D.C., where he can just ship them in, is that we don’t have a governor because we’re not a state," Strauss said.

The district has some local power under the "Home Rule," which was passed by Congress in 1973. The law grants the residents of Washington, D.C. the ability to manage affairs by electing a mayor and city council members, but gives final oversight of the district’s laws and budget to Congress. Advocates of D.C. statehood say the representational inadequacy of the "Home Rule" was highlighted in the aftermath of the recent descent of thousands of National Guardsmen and federal law enforcement officers on the nation's capital, none of whom were requested by the city's highest official, Mayor Bowser, who also had no oversight of them once they arrived. None of the were National Guardsmen and federal enforcement officers were ordered into the city and the management of their movement did not involve Bowser.

"People [were] looking at federal troops on street corners, and not just in front of the White House or a national monument but [...] in places where the apartment buildings are," Strauss said of the moment in an interview with ABC News. "People think we're some kind of federal theme park with attractions and fun exhibits to see and then at night everybody goes home to some part of the United States. No, we have a vibrant community here, much of which has nothing to do with the federal government."

Many Republicans disagree with that notion, saying D.C. statehood would be the equivalent of giving 'Big Government' its own state.

"Does anyone believe giving Washington more power in Washington will ever help hardworking taxpayers across America? Of course not," Rep. Kevin Brady, R.-Texas, tweeted Thursday.

According to data compiled by Intuit Turbotax, in the 2019 fiscal year, only seven states -- including California, Hawaii, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, New Jersey and Vermont -- had a higher income tax rate, than that of Washington, D.C., where many residents bear "Taxation Without Representation" license plate mottos on their cars.

“Residents of the District of Columbia who are predominantly people of color, pay more taxes per capita than any state in the nation and yet [they] lack U.S. senators and a full voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right during a Thursday teleconference.

"D.C. has more than 700,000 residents and a population larger than the populations in Vermont and Wyoming and yet has for hundreds of years been denied full political representation in our legislative branch of government," she added, while noting that the lack of statehood creates a "second class citizenship" for the district’s residents.

Without statehood and full congressional representation, Gupta says "all other rights are really illusory."

Some officials have noted that the lack of full political representation contradicts the country’s long-touted philosophical identity as the world’s beacon of democracy. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who serves as the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and supports H.R. 51, noted that dissonance in a statement earlier this month, saying that the United States is the "only democratic nation on Earth that still denies voting rights to the residents of its capital city."

"Irony is a polite word for it," D.C.’s Sen. Strauss says. "It’s not just irony, it is an insult."

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