House Democrats Pass Statehood Bill for Washington, DC

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser stands on the rooftop of the Hay Adams Hotel near the White House on June 5, 2020. (Credit: Executive Office of the Mayor/Khalid Naji-Allah)

WASHINGTON (CN) — It’s been a long time coming for residents of the nation’s capital, but on Friday the House voted 232-180 to make the District of Columbia the 51st state, a move that is unlikely to be approved by the current Senate but sets a historic precedent that could one day lead to statehood.  

Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota was the only Democrat who voted against the bill. Justin Amash, a former Republican turned Libertarian, also joined his former GOP colleagues in voting against the measure Friday.

Sponsored by the district’s longtime nonvoting delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the bill known as H.R. 51 — aptly named for 51 states — also admits the district to the union with a new name: the Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, for both President George Washington and Frederick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist who escaped slavery and went on to become one of the most influential black Americans of the 19th century.

It has been 27 years since Congress voted on D.C. statehood. It failed in 1993 because, according to remarks from Norton when she introduced the bill, Southern Democrats at the time aired on the side of conservatism and sank the effort.  

Friday’s vote, however, went swimmingly with nearly all Democrats throwing their support behind statehood and arguing that the district has been underrepresented for too long despite the fact that its residents pay taxes like people in every other state — the highest federal taxes per capita, in fact — and have served in American wars since the Revolution of 1776.

“Congress has two choices: it can continue to exercise undemocratic autocratic authority over the 705,000 American citizens who reside in our nation’s capital, treating them, in the words of Frederick Douglass, as aliens, not citizens, but subjects,” Norton said on the House floor Friday morning. “Or Congress can live up to this nation’s ideals and pass H.R. 51.”

The measure is especially personal for Norton. She is the great granddaughter of Richard Holmes, an enslaved man who walked off a plantation in Virginia and settled in the nation’s capital after finding work building the very city his descendant represents today.

Her grandfather, also born Richard Holmes, was one of the very first black Americans to serve in the district’s fire department as well.

Statehood has been a rallying call of Washingtonians for years, with its advocacy even finding its way onto license plates that advertise the grievance: “Taxation Without Representation.”

It has become even more of a hot-button issue recently as both the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd put the district’s lack of sovereignty under the magnifying glass.

The pandemic relief package known as the CARES Act, for example, split roughly $3 billion in emergency funding between Washington and five U.S. territories based on population size. But that resulted in the district receiving $500 million in aid whereas full-fledged states were guaranteed, at minimum, $1.25 billion.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks at a news conference on D.C. statehood on June 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

That left Washington with a $750 million shortfall as residents struggled to cope with the virus that eventually turned the city into a hotspot, said Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force.

Covid-19 has also had a wildly disproportionate impact on the black population of the city, according to the D.C. Health Department. The department reported in May that even though black residents made up less than half of the city’s overall population, they represented 80% of all Covid-19 deaths.

Vast income inequality also plagues Washington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and up to 46,000 capital residents may not qualify for Covid-19 stimulus checks first issued by the Trump administration in April. Some don’t have to file a tax return because of low income, but filing a return is a key part of being able to receive the aid.  

In addition, when protesters flooded Washington demanding police reform and justice for Floyd, it was the federal government’s handling of those demonstrators in an unrepresented district that made the drawbacks to a lack of statehood crystal clear.  

After Trump ordered peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square dispersed with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets so he could hold a photo op at a Washington church., the district’s streets began to fill up with hundreds of federal armed forces not approved or requested by Mayor Muriel Bowser but ordered by the president. Those forces included troops from the National Guard and officers the Bureau of Prisons, Federal Correctional Institute, Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol and more.

Trump even threatened to federalize the city’s 4,000-member police department by enforcing the 1973 Home Rule Act but never followed through. When Mayor Bowser later called for the removal of National Guard and other federal forces at a press conference on June 6, she summarized the position of statehood advocates: without it, residents would always have limited control over what happens in their own streets.

Washingtonians are not represented in the Senate either. Instead, the district has two “shadow senators,” Paul Strauss and Mike Brown, both Democrats, whose offices are not even housed inside of the official Senate buildings on Capitol Hill.

Various questions over the constitutionality of admitting the district as a state have always plagued the debate. Conservative-leaning organizations like the Heritage Foundation have long argued admission would require adding a new constitutional amendment, according to terms dictated by the Constitution’s existing 23rd Amendment.

“The Constitution simply does not allow city governments to become microstates with all the rights and responsibilities of full states,” Representative Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican, said Friday. “The debate about the nature of Washington, D.C., is not a new debate, but it is absolutely a settled one.”

The 23rd Amendment dubs the district the “seat of government” and a “permanent constitutional entity,” but it does not address how Washington’s physical boundaries can be altered — a boon for statehood proponents.

H.R. 51 does not change the district’s designation as the “seat of government,” but instead sets new boundaries for a 10-square-mile portion of the city that would be known as the “federal district.” That district is unpopulated and would include the Capitol, National Mall, White House, Supreme Court, and a handful of other federal buildings and offices.

Some Republicans, like North Carolina Representative Gregory Murphy, proposed amendments to stop the statehood effort but failed. Murphy first proposed the district recede back into Maryland, and in another amendment sought to require Washington to pay the full cost of changing U.S. flags from 50 to 51 stars.

Another amendment from Republican Virginia Foxx, also of North Carolina, proposed mandating the Department of Justice to prosecute any corruption cases involving D.C. officials before statehood becomes official. Yet another failed amendment from Republican Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana demanded the new state take custody of any federal inmates who were convicted of crimes in Washington but are housed elsewhere.

Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the push for D.C. statehood is currently doomed. But Friday’s vote sets a new precedent should the Senate flip from a Republican majority to a Democratic one in November. The Trump White House has also made clear it would never support statehood but that could change under a new president.

Former Vice President Joe Biden first endorsed D.C. statehood in 2015 and pushed the idea again in February. A day before the House vote, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee tweeted: “DC should be a state, pass it on.”

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