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.
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.