In Historic First, The House Of Representatives Passes D.C. Statehood Bill

Jun 26, 2020
In The News

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill approving D.C. statehood on Friday, the first time a chamber of Congress has ever passed such legislation.

Members voted almost entirely along party lines, an outcome that had long been expected in the Democrat-led House, where the bill had majority support.

232 members voted in favor of the bill, while 180 voted against it. Only one Democrat, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, voted against the measure, while no Republicans voted to support it.

Outside the U.S. Capitol just before the vote (and after a two-hour debate on the bill), D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told DCist, “We knew exactly what was going to happen: that the Democrats would vote for freedom and equality and my good Republican friends would vote against it.”

The bill passed with 227 co-sponsors. The Senate, however, is not expected to take up the measure, as it faces tough opposition from Republicans.

Earlier in the day, as lawmakers debated the bill, House Democrats, many of whom were wearing matching 51st state face masks, said the legislation was long overdue.

“By admitting Washington, D.C. as a state, we will admit what we already know to be true,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. “That its people are our fellow Americans, equal in their pursuit of happiness and their enjoyment of the full rights and privileges of American citizenship, including representation in the Congress of the United States.”

Maryland Representative John Sarbanes echoed that sentiment. “For two centuries, the people of the District of Columbia have been disenfranchised, denied fair representation, excluded from our great democratic experiment,” he said.

But Republicans argued the move was a political ploy to gain Democratic seats in Congress and ran counter to the Founding Fathers’ intentions.

Georgia Representative Jody Hice said, “If the nation’s capital city were situated within a state, the federal government could be subject to undue influence of that state, and that’s not the intent of our federal government. That’s not the intent of this district that’s been set aside, and yet that’s exactly what would happen under this bill.”

Pennsylvania Representative Fred Keller moved to recommit with instructions, the last chance to change the bill before the House voted on it. The motion included provisions requiring D.C. to comply with certain parameters around issues like Second Amendment rights and sanctuary city policies, among others.

The motion failed, with members also voting largely along party lines: 182 votes in favor and 227 votes against it.

In a press conference ahead of the historic vote on Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was joined by Hoyer, Norton, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, made her case for D.C. statehood and called out federal overreach.

Bowser said “the whims of a federal government can encroach on our even limited autonomy, and it can do so in ways that are threats to all of the American states and all of the American people. The way we say ‘no’ is to make D.C. a state.”

Her remarks came after the D.C. National Guard and U.S. Marshals were instructed to standby to assist in protecting monuments after protesters clashed with police earlier in the week and targeted a number of controversial statues in D.C.

Bowser and President Donald Trump have clashed in recent weeks over the federal response to recent protests following the killing of George Floyd, prompting the mayor to renew calls for statehood. Earlier this month, federal law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters from Lafayette Square so Trump could have his photo taken in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Trump also called in thousands of National Guard troops to aid local law enforcement and stationed active duty military around the District, threatening to send them in if need be. The aggressive show of force was criticized by local officials and protesters, as the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

“Like a scene from a dystopian movie, Americans saw images of soldiers in camouflage arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Units of federal law enforcement officers lacking any identifying insignia roamed downtown,” Bowser wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post earlier this month. “This blatant degradation of our home right before my own eyes offered another reminder — a particularly powerful one — of why we need statehood for the District.”

If passed, the bill would turn D.C.’s eight wards into a state called the Douglass Commonwealth, which would be represented by two senators and have a voting representative in the House. However, federal government sites like the National Mall and the Capitol would stay under federal control.

The Republican-led Senate is unlikely to pick up the legislation. The bill lacks broad Republican support, and on Thursday, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, said statehood would “turn Washington into little more than a gerrymandered government theme-park, surrounded on all sides by a new state controlled, of course, by the Democrats.”

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the proposal “full-bore socialism” and said he would never introduce the bill.

The White House also issued an official policy statement on the bill Wednesday, saying that the president’s advisors would recommend he veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

On Thursday, Bowser pushed back at the notion that “we’re too liberal or we’re too Black, or there are too many Democrats.”

“Who we elect is our business,” she said.

While D.C. has a population of more than 706,000 people, which is more than Wyoming and Vermont and pays federal taxes, it lacks voting representation in Congress and does not have the control over its own affairs that states do.

In 1971, the District got its first-ever nonvoting delegate to Congress. The 1973 Home Rule Act instituted the District’s current structure of governance and gave D.C. the power to elect a 13-member city council and its own mayor.

Last week as House Democrats announced the date of the vote, Hoyer voiced his support for statehood and criticized the District’s federal coronavirus relief package, which gave D.C. less than half the money states got, despite having more coronavirus cases than 19 of them.

Hoyer looked ahead to the next steps for the bill on Thursday, stating that he and Pelosi are “not just committed to getting it through the House, we’re committed to getting it to be law.”

Bowser echoed that sentiment. “While it is my great pleasure to be the mayor of my hometown, [I was] born here without a vote, but I swear I will not die here without a vote.”