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D.C. Statehood: A real possibility?

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The House of Representatives voted 216-208 on Thursday in favour of a bill, HR 51, that would grant statehood to Washington D.C. It’s the second year in the row that the Democratic-controlled House has used its congressional majority to pass what has been a long-term goal for the blue party, with D.C. statehood painted as a civil right and voting issue. However, just as last year, it faces many obstacles in the Senate and is unlikely to pass into law. 

Voting rights in Washington D.C. differ from those of every other US citizen. As the District of Columbia is a federal district, it is not afforded voting representation in Congress. In fact, the US’s legislative branch has exclusive jurisdiction over the District in “all cases whatsoever”. With just one delegate in the House, D.C.’s representation is limited to voting on procedural matters and in congressional committees as opposed to any voting on the House floor or the Senate. As a result, the approximately 700,000 citizens of Washington D.C., notedly more than the states of Wyoming and Vermont, are not represented on a federal level. And whilst they can vote in presidential elections due to the 23rd amendment to elect their delegate, it’s only a small portion of representation other citizens have. More than political inequality, the issue is also a matter of enfranchisement for the city’s Black majority. Sustained anti-racism protests and a focus on voting rights resulting from the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement have elevated the cause once again. Now, with the eye of a global civil rights movement on Capitol Hill, the second time the bill has come to Congress seems greatly more significant. 

The HR51 would create the state of Washington Douglass Commonwealth as the first new state since Hawaii joined the union in 1959. Named in honour of slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the state would become the 51st state of the United States of America, to grant congressional independence to the entire city, aside from federal landmarks such as The White House and Capitol Hill. And, most significantly, the bill would allow for a single voting representative in the House and two Senators which D.C. citizens would elect. 

However, before the bill makes the journey to President Biden’s desk in the Oval Office to receive the presidential seal (or veto), the bill must pass through the Senate chamber. 

Whilst Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer has promised to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote, the proposal is staunchly opposed by Republicans and even some Democrats. Divided by partisanship amid a polarised political environment, the Senate have enough votes to block the legislation for the second consecutive year, even though control of the chamber is divided 50-to-50 between the two main political parties. 

The reason most Republicans are opposing the bill lies in politics, as they believe DC statehood to be a power-grabbing political move from the Democrats. The reason for this is that the area, with a Black plurality, has historically voted for the Democratic party in national elections. Republicans are therefore using the guise of constitutional limitations to hide their political opposition. Oversight Committee Ranking Member James Comer said: 

“America’s federal government should be of the people, by the people and for the people” 

But with HR 51, America’s government will become of the Democrats, by the Democrats and for the Democrats.” However, states added to the Union have always benefitted the party that pushed them through. For example, Republicans were pushing for both North and South Dakota to join the Union in the late 19th Century, standing as two separate states with two senators each. And with the Senate’s 50 Democrats representing 42 million more Americans than its 50 Republicans – a power-grab isn’t surprising. 

There is constitutional reasoning for opposing the bill. In that Article 1, Section 8, it is stated that Congress should be in charge of the seat of government. However, this does specify “not exceeding ten miles square” and it doesn’t mention anything about the area around the government centre. A proposal has already been made to narrow the federal district to its political heart containing the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court and the Lincoln Memorial to maintain a governmental district whilst enfranchising the significant population of the capital city. Of course, retrocession of land that was formally part of Maryland would allow some citizens of D.C. to have state representation without the forming of a new state. This has occurred before, with areas of Washington D.C. west of the Potomac river re-joining Virginia in the 1840s. But in their support for statehood, citizens have specified opposition and reluctance to concede land. Mayor Muriel Bowser repeatedly rejected the proposal: “DC voters have already said loud and clear that we do not want retrocession, we want statehood.” 

Even if the bill passes the Senate, it will require constitutional upheaval and years of delay. Whilst the Founding Fathers hadn’t foreseen the growth of their capital city to over half a million or their country from 13 colonies to 50 states, they did put an amendment process in place exactly because of this. But, adding a state and repealing the 23rd amendment is almost impossible due to the need for a supermajority and the existence of the filibuster compounding the state of the current political climate. With Democrats calling for fundamental changes to the Electoral College in order to spread power more proportionately, it seems odd to grant the same amount of power to the state of Washington. It doesn’t make political sense for senators from small (population-wise) states to vote it through and it is not in the interests of voters outside D.C. to dilute their political power.

With no quick fix, HR 51 is an unlikely possibility in 2021. With Republicans sticking firm to the rounded number of 50, and Democrats taking a stand that hugely benefits their party, all that HR 51 has taught the nation is that the political balance of power in America’s political capital is more important than the civil rights of those who live there.

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