WASHINGTON (CN) — A House committee on Wednesday advanced a bill granting statehood to Washington, D.C., during a hearing filled with the same partisan division that encompassed debate on the measure last year.
The issue has smoldered for many years but was rekindled in 2016, when 83% of residents in the nation's capital voted for a referendum to petition Congress for statehood, alongside District Council approval to draft a state constitution and draw new boundaries.
House Oversight Committee members in support of statehood noted Wednesday, as they did in September 2019, that D.C. has a larger population than both Vermont and Wyoming, with more than 700,000 residents, and has a $15.5 billion annual budget — larger than those of 14 states. The District’s general fund balance alone totals $2.8 billion dollars, lawmakers said, also noting a triple-A bond rating as evidence of the would-be state’s ability to be financially self-sufficient.
More than 120 groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Human Rights Campaign support D.C. statehood and the bill has over 200 co-sponsors in the House.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat and chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, noted the U.S. is the only democratic country in the world that denies voting rights and local self-governance to the people of its capital city. The District pays more in federal taxes than 22 states, she said.
“Unfortunately, so far Republicans have opposed our efforts,” Maloney said. “They would rather deny voting rights and self-government to more than 712,000 Americans than even consider the possibility that two senators from the new state could possibly be Democrats. Think about that argument: they are willing to violate the core principles of our democracy merely because the new senators might possibly be from a different political party.”
A markup on identical legislation last year was the first time since 1993 that lawmakers held a congressional vote on the issue. Opponents then, as they did Wednesday, argued the Constitution set out explicit division between a federal district and a state, fearing corruption if federal government funds passed through a state legislature.
Constitutional revision is another necessary component to statehood, opponents of the bill argue, saying the 23rd Amendment – which gives D.C. residents equal voting rights – would need to be rewritten if the state was admitted.
Congressman James Comer, Kentucky Republican, said the effort is entirely about creating two new Democratic Senate seats, part of a larger project Democratic leadership have “to reshape America into that Socialist utopia” imagined by progressives. He claimed some of those ideas are included President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Act, which is aimed at repairing key infrastructure throughout the U.S., including highways, bridges and airports, and building out broadband internet access.
“These ideas may be possible amongst progressive circles, but they ignore the issues facing America today,” Comer said Wednesday. “Our Southern border is in crisis. Half of the Republicans on the Oversight Committee just returned yesterday from the border. In March, just three months into the Biden administration, we had the most illegal border crossings in 15 years. Our law enforcement officers who keep our citizens safe every day are under constant fire every day from Democrats who demand to defund them.”
Nonetheless, last year’s 232-180 passage of H.R. 51 set a precedent of support for expanding the union that reverberated in lawmakers’ remarks on Wednesday. Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin noted America only started with 13 states and added another 37 into the union as time went on. He pointed to the equal footing doctrine, which says each state should be treated equally once they are admitted.
Comer argued that even if Congress admits the District into the union through this legislation, the constitutionality of its admittance would not survive judicial review. But Raskin noted the U.S. Supreme Court, or any court for that matter, had never struck down a statehood admission — nor did the nation’s highest court invalidate boundary reduction for D.C. in 1791, when a third of the District was ceded back to Virginia.
“It is also a political question today because it is up to Congress to determine whether or not to admit new states, it’s not up to the courts,” Raskin said.
A slew of amendments to legislation, dubbed the Washington D.C. Admissions Act, were offered during Wednesday’s hearing, including an amendment by Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar to further extend congressional control over the lawmaking process in D.C. Maloney said the proposal was the opposite of what members were trying to accomplish through statehood.
“This amendment would impose new restrictions on the autonomy of the D.C. government and make it harder for the D.C. government to operate and make it easier for Congress to overturn local D.C. legislation,” Maloney said.
The bill advanced out of the committee and is expected to receive a full vote in the House next week.
A hearing to discuss Puerto Rico’s admission as a state also was held by the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi testified that the issue is coming before lawmakers during a tumultuous time in American history for individual voting rights.
“This urgent issue comes before the committee at a time when the United States is engaged in a great national debate over voting, the most important right we have to shape our political destiny,” Pierluisi said. "This hearing adds to that debate the fact that 21 years into the 21st century, in the United States, approximately 3.1 million U.S. citizens – the majority of whom are Hispanic and bilingual and as such, ethnic and linguistic minorities within the United States – have no domestic legally recognized right to vote for the country’s president or vice president or any voting representation in the House or the Senate.”
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