WASHINGTON (CN) – A bill to make the District of Columbia the nation’s 51st state was met with tumultuous debate during a House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday, before it is set to be scrutinized by another panel on its way to the House floor.
The bill – which is sponsored by 223 representatives and backed by over 100 nationwide organizations – is the first time lawmakers will hold a congressional vote on the issue of Washington, D.C. statehood since 1993. In addition, the Senate’s companion resolution to the House’s bill already has received the support of 35 senators.
While there were no witnesses at Tuesday’s legislative markup hearing, House lawmakers first heard from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other statehood advocates last September.
Those advocates laid out their case for statehood, noting the District has an annual budget of $15.5 billion, a general fund balance of $2.8 billion and about 700,000 Americans without congressional representation. In 2016, District residents voted in favor of statehood overwhelmingly, with 83% of referendum voters saying they’d like the City Council to petition Congress for statehood.
Opponents of the bill – largely House Republicans – see the resolution as a means to skirt constitutional requirements for the addition of states. They argued Tuesday, as they did in September, that the U.S. Constitution’s 23rd Amendment would have to be rewritten to alter voting rights of D.C. residents.
They also say the Constitution sets out an explicit need for a division between the district housing the federal government and an additional state, with the founders citing a fear of corruption if the government’s funds passed through a state legislature.
Members of House Oversight Committee debated the bill at length Tuesday. Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a constitutional law professor, said amending the Constitution to reflect accepting D.C. as a state would be unprecedented. As for Congress’ oversight of a district to house the federal government, Raskin said that language was exactly the kind used to create the District’s statehood, not prevent it.
“America began with 13 states, the 13 original colonies. We’ve admitted 37 states, which means the vast majority of the states that came in after, none of them have been admitted by constitutional amendment,” Raskin said. “All of them have been admitted by a simple act of Congress – what is being proposed here in the statehood legislation.”
Representative Gerald Connolly, D-Va., used the statehood fights of both Nebraska and Kansas as examples of congressional disagreement during the admittance of states into the union. That debate eventually molded the Civil War, he said, adding that the country has a checkered past when it came to issues of statehood but that doesn’t mean D.C. residents should be excluded from voting for congressional representation.
“At the end of the day, one thing is clear: everyone in this country is entitled to representation, no exceptions. No hiding behind constitutional sanctimony,” Connolly said. “We’re here today to right a wrong, to finally give a representational voice to 700,000 fellow Americans.”
Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said during an opening statement Tuesday that even Vice President Mike Pence had admitted the injustice over D.C. residents’ inability to vote.
Maloney noted that as a member of Congress in 2007, Pence said, “The fact that more than half a million Americans living in the District of Columbia are denied a single voting representative in Congress is clearly a historic wrong.’”
“Are these just words? Or do they mean something? Because if we truly believe these words, we need to do more than just say them. We need to do more than just repeat them. We must act on them,” Maloney said.
After advancing through the House Oversight Committee, the bill now moves onto the House Rules Committee. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has said he hopes to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote before the summer recess.
Not only did Tuesday’s markup hearing serve as an opportunity for House members to debate the statehood bill, but it also allowed members to offer amendments to the bill. A number of changes were offered, largely by Republicans who sought to dictate provisions of the would-be state’s constitution.
For example, one amendment offered by Representative Carol Miller, R-W.Va., would have required health professionals in the District who perform abortions to immediately admit a baby to the hospital if that child was born alive following an attempted abortion.
“Our most vulnerable and youngest citizens deserve the utmost protection under the law. Should D.C. ever become a state, they should have to institute these protections as well,” Miller said.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s nonvoting representative, said Miller’s amendment, along with others offered Tuesday that would have altered the proposed state constitution, are an overreach.
“The whole point of this process is to give the new state the right to design its own laws. What the gentle lady is doing is the kind of amendment that the Republicans every single year place into the D.C. appropriation bill,” Norton said.
Bo Shuff, executive director of D.C. Vote, one of many groups supporting the bill, said in an interview Tuesday that Americans typically look at the issue of statehood as a local one. In reality, the issue is a national one affecting all Americans, he said, with congressional representation at the core of his group’s mission.
“That message really resonates with Americans who believe in the fundamental concept of one person, one vote. And when we look at D.C., we don’t have one person, one vote, we have one person, zero votes,” Shuff said. “The second side of the coin is congressional interference and congressional blockades of legislation. No matter what your opinion is on any given piece of legislation, we all as Americans pretty much agree that people ought to be able to decide for themselves.”