The Washington, D.C. statehood movement is gaining momentum. On Thursday April 22, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, by a vote of 216 to 208 with all votes following party lines; the Democrats supported statehood, and Republicans opposed it. Despite the thin margin of victory, supporters of the statehood movement have good reason to be satisfied: this marks just the second time a statehood bill has been passed by the House and only the third time such a bill has reached a vote since 1990.
Provisions in the legislation would establish Washington, D.C., as the new state of “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” (named after renowned abolitionist and D.C. resident Frederick Douglass), reduce the size of the constitutionally mandated federal district to include only a select area including the White House and a few other government buildings, and give full congressional representation to the 51st state in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
If the bill is passed, the Senate would be expanded to 102 seats, and the House of Representatives would be expanded to 436 representatives, one of which would be D.C.'s until the next reapportionment of congressional seating.
The legislation was sponsored by Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who has served as D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate since 1991, and received 216 cosponsors. Norton has been a longtime supporter of D.C.’s fight for statehood; she supported the first statehood bill to be brought to a vote during her third year as a congressional delegate in 1993. The current D.C. Admission Act was first introduced by Norton and passed by the House last June before being reintroduced in January with the advent of the 117th Congress and receiving a House hearing in March and a vote in April.
Will this bill pass in the Senate?
Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) has sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill along with 38 original cosponsors, a record number for Senate legislation. As of May 1st, the bill has 44 cosponsors, all Democrats.
Despite high levels of Democratic support overall, Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), moderate Democrats who are seen as swing votes in the Senate, have not joined their party colleagues in supporting the bill. On Friday, April 30th, Senator Manchin became the first Democratic senator to publicly oppose the statehood bill. In a radio interview, Manchin said that any D.C. statehood measure should take the form of a constitutional amendment rather than simple legislation.
As long as the filibuster exists in the Senate and Democrats fail to command a 60-vote supermajority, it is highly unlikely this statehood proposition will be approved. After H.R. 51’s first passage last summer, the Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, vowed to prevent any statehood proposals from being successful. Republicans in the Senate can filibuster the bill and kill it before it even receives a vote. Even if Senators Sinema and Manchin both supported the bill, their opposition to ending the filibuster allows their GOP opponents to control the bill’s fate.
What are the arguments for and against D.C. statehood?
Supporters of the statehood movement point above all to the lack of congressional representation given to residents of the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., has one delegate in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Norton, whose influence is reduced primarily to a procedural role. As a nonvoting delegate, she can introduce legislation and serve on committees, but nevertheless cannot participate in official floor votes on new proposals. The district has no representation in the Senate, and it was not until 1963 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment that D.C. residents were represented in presidential elections. Despite paying federal taxes, serving in the military, and being American citizens, D.C. residents are not given the amount of representation afforded to most places in the U.S.
Supporters of the statehood movement also see the cause as a racial justice issue. According to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, 46% of the approximately 700,000 D.C. citizens are African American. Should D.C. become a state it would have the highest proportion of Black citizens of any state in the country. Statehood activists argue that because African Americans are underrepresented in the Senate, D.C. needs state status to alleviate this underrepresentation.
Meanwhile, Republicans opposed to the statehood movement allege that it constitutes a “power grab” by the Senate Democrats who are frustrated by a lack of legislative success. Washington, D.C., has historically voted heavily against the GOP, and the new senators would most likely be Democrats. Statehood opponents say that the addition of the district as a state is a short term political move that will lock up two new senate seats for Democrats for the foreseeable future.
Opponents also argue that Washington, D.C. will be vastly overrepresented should it become a state. Even though its population would outnumber the states of Vermont and Wyoming, D.C. is still just one city. It would be approximately 95% smaller in area than Rhode Island, which is currently the smallest state. Why should one single city hold that much political power relative to any other city?
Furthermore, opponents point to the Constitution’s creation of a federal district as a sign that D.C. was never intended to be a state, and argue that the Founding Fathers had good reason to want the nation’s capital to be a unique federal entity. Libertarian legal theorist Roger Pilon has contended that James Madison was correct to think that the country needs a federal district so that the federal government is not “dependent on any particular state—and, equally important, so that no state [is] either dependent on the federal government or disproportionately influential on that government.”
One alternative solution proposed by conservatives who oppose statehood yet also wish to see representation for D.C. residents is the retrocession of the district to Maryland. This process would retain a small federal district while returning the rest of D.C. back to Maryland, the state from which the current district was created. Although this proposal would give D.C. citizens voting rights and representation like if they resided in any other state, it is unpopular in both Maryland and Washington. Maryland’s political parties and citizens alike don’t want undue new influence in their politics, and D.C. citizens still desire the political status that comes with being their own independent state.
What does the public think?
D.C. residents largely support the statehood movement even as opinions remain divided nationally. In 2016, 78% of voters in the federal district supported a measure of approval for statehood in a citywide referendum. However, recent polling indicates that opinions are divided nationally. In one poll from January, 49% of voters were in favor of D.C. statehood and 45% were opposed.
Support for the movement usually mirrors party affiliations. In that same January poll, 73% of Democrats approved of statehood compared to only 27% of Republicans.
Public opinion remains mutable and the issue of voting rights is especially impactul on national opinions. In a recent FiveThirtyEight polling report, the inclusion of D.C.’s lack of representation in a polling prompt might have resulted in a higher level of support:
In a February poll taken on behalf of Democracy for All 2021 Action, which backs efforts to admit D.C. as a state, Data for Progress found that 54 percent of likely voters backed statehood while just 35 percent opposed it. However, DFP told respondents that statehood would give congressional voting representation to more than 714,000 Washingtonians, “just like Americans in every other state,” so this question framing likely primed respondents to be more favorable toward statehood. But it also suggests that stressing equality may help pro- statehood forces gain support. In fact, DFP found that changing the question wording to say D.C. suffers from “taxation without representation” increased the share in favor of statehood to 58 percent.
Conversely, a February Rasmussen poll reported only 29% support for statehood when the prompt mentioned that “The U.S. Constitution designates the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., as a federal district and not a state.” These findings suggest that national sentiment is divided yet responsi2ve to arguments for one side or the other.
Are there any other roadblocks to statehood?
There are several constitutional questions about D.C. statehood that the current bill wishes to resolve.
The U.S. Constitution mandates the creation and upkeep of a federal district in Article 1. Section 8. H.R. 51 clears this issue by retaining a federal district. It simply reduces it in size to a few government buildings and keeps a designated area intact as the seat of the federal government.
Furthermore, the 23rd Amendment guarantees presidential electors to the federal district. Would the new, two-square mile federal area still get a say in presidential elections? Without the repeal of the 23rd Amendment, it would. It is commonly accepted that any D.C. statehood measure would require a repeal or replacement of the 23rd Amendment.
To solve this, H.R. 51 attempts to provide an expedited repeal process for the amendment. It calls for an immediate joint resolution to consider a constitutional amendment repealing the 23rd Amendment to be placed on the legislative calendar, yet there is no specific timeline or guarantee that such an amendment would be successful.
Regardless of the current bill’s success in the Senate, its passage in the House is a victory for pro-statehood activists, especially Congresswoman Norton, who have been waiting for measures like H.R. 51 to pass for decades. Even with GOP opposition, high levels of Democratic support and the progress of the movement since 1990 indicate that “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” may soon become the 51st star represented on the U.S. Flag.
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