D.C. statehood bill advances to House floor; likely to pass for first time in history

Feb 11, 2020
In The News

A divided House committee on Tuesday advanced a D.C. statehood bill to the floor for the first time in nearly three decades, bringing advocates closer to their goal of making the nation’s capital the 51st state.

The bill has a good chance of passing the House of Representatives, because Democrats have a solid majority and the cause of statehood has become a darling of Democratic leaders, national civil rights groups and presidential candidates.

But it faces almost certain death in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

“It is fitting that this historic vote happened in the midst of Black History Month, for I dare say — achieving D.C. statehood would be black history,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said in a statement.

A plurality of the overwhelmingly Democratic city’s approximately 700,000 residents are African American.

Maryland congressman reminds us that D.C. can become a state

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said Feb. 11 that the District can earn statehood because Congress formerly allowed 37 other territories to do so without amendment. (House Oversight Committee)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made D.C. statehood a priority shortly after she took over leading the chamber last year, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) reversed his long-standing opposition to the concept in May.

The one time the House voted on statehood, in 1993, it failed 277 to 153, with support from 60 percent of Democrats and one Republican. Now, the bill has 223 co-sponsors and is considered a civil rights litmus test for the party’s left flank.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) cast her committee vote in favor of the legislation on Tuesday, she was emphatic: “Absolutely, yes.”

"For such a historic achievement for the District of Columbia, the only message I can convey is gratitude," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's nonvoting representative and the lead sponsor of the bill. "We have only one last hill to climb in the House — onward to the House floor!"

The bill is unlikely to even get a vote in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) strongly opposes statehood, in part because a new state would probably add two Democratic senators.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform spent more than six hours debating the bill, which would shrink the seat of the federal government to a two-square-mile enclave, encompassing the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings.

The rest of the District would become the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, after the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in Washington for the last part of his life.

“The United States is a democracy, but its capital is not,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the committee chair, said before the meeting.

Republicans — who oppose D.C. statehood on ideological, fiscal and constitutional grounds — introduced amendments that would impose restrictions related to abortion, immigration and gun laws on the proposed new state and federal enclave.

All 15 were defeated, all on party-line votes.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the ranking Republican on the committee, argued that only a constitutional amendment, ratified by two-thirds of states, could create a state — not mere legislation.

“You want to form a 51st state, then knock yourself out,” added Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.). “Follow the constitutionally mandated process to make that happen.”

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional law professor and longtime statehood proponent, countered that after the 13 original colonies, the United States admitted 37 states by a simple act of Congress, which is how Democrats propose to make D.C. a state.

Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) offered an amendment based on the federal Born-Alive Survivors Protection Act, which she said was necessary after Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) made comments last year that Republicans interpreted to mean he favored infanticide. Northam strongly rejected that interpretation.

Norton called Miller’s proposal “unprecedented.”

The gentlelady wants to legislate for the new state before it is a new state,” Norton said. “The whole point of this process is to give the new state the right to decide its own laws.”

Republicans also offered amendments that would wipe out gun laws in the new federal enclave and force the new state to cooperate with federal immigration agencies.

Raskin called such amendments an affront to D.C. residents’ right to self-determination.

“Please do not use their drive for statehood as an opportunity to finger-paint and scrawl graffiti all over their state constitution with your pet political agendas,” he said.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) questioned why the proposed new state would include the Trump International Hotel, in the former Old Post Office building, but exclude the FBI headquarters on the opposite side of the street. Both are in buildings owned by the General Services Administration.

He said statehood advocates were seeking tax revenue generated by the Trump hotel, and offered an amendment that would make all contiguous federally owned buildings part of the in the federal enclave, not the new state.

Republicans also seized on a scandal involving D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who resigned last month before his colleagues could expel him from office over repeated ethics violations. (Evans is now running for his old seat.)

Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) have written to Maloney asking for a hearing to examine Evans’s “disturbing ethical transgressions as the ­WMATA Board Chair and a D.C. Council member.”

Norton replied that over the past decade, the Department of Justice has prosecuted corruption in every state represented by Republicans on the committee.