By Eva Lynch
The weekend before the Congressional hearing on D.C. statehood, Pennsylvania Avenue’s lampposts were embellished with 51-star flags, symbolizing the call of D.C. residents to grant the District statehood. Thursday’s Congressional hearing served as the first meeting regarding this issue in 25 years.
The bill on the floor is sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who is Washington, D.C.’s non-voting representative in the House. Her bill would trim the seat of the federal government to an area of about two square miles, which would enclose the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Supreme Court. The remaining land in the District would become its own new state.
Passing this legislation would prompt many issues regarding the disentanglement of the District from the federal government, which currently supports much of the city’s criminal justice system, including courts, prisons, and supervision of offenders released back into the community, with an annual fund of more than $1 billion. Additionally, because Maryland initially yielded land for the creation of the nation’s capital, Maryland must agree to grant D.C. statehood.
This bill represents an issue that has long been a polarizing one in the House: Democrats embrace the issue as one of civil rights, yet Republicans are unified in their opposition. Supporters of the bill and advocates of statehood for the District are optimistic about the outcome of this hearing, as they feel this issue has gained more traction than in recent years.
Republicans cite violations of the intentions of the Constitution as the primary reason for their opposition of D.C. statehood. Particularly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) said he feels granting D.C. statehood would be granting Democrats an unfair advantage. Two new Democratic senators will likely join the Senate as the elected representatives of the District’s diverse and politically liberal population, an addition which would increase the Democratic party’s influence in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Democrats —D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) specifically — are enraged by this reasoning. They counter that refusing to grant D.C. statehood would be unfair even if the population was conservatively-minded, built on agriculture, or a thriving industrial city.
“This is America,” Bowser said, “and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law.”
Another issue which contributes to the partisan nature of this issue is the question of whether Washington, D.C. can stand alone as a state financially. Republicans especially are unsure the district can afford statehood, in light of the many times the federal government had to step in to save the city from the brink of bankruptcy. However, supporters are confident the existing $15.5 billion budget is more than enough to support more than 700,000 residents, who paid more in taxes in 2018 than the residents of at least 20 other states.
The Constitution outlines the founders’ vision of a federal district to serve as the seat of the government and to be overseen by Congress, so that no state would have unfair influence over national legislature due solely to its proximity to the capital. Opposers of the bill are worried that granting the District statehood will do exactly that: if D.C. becomes a state, it may result in disproportionate influence on the government, as the federal enclave will continue to depend on Washington, D.C. for electricity, water, and snow removal, among other necessities.
Yet another reason for Republicans’ hesitancy in passing this legislation is this hearing’s temporal alignment with a federal investigation into the longest-serving D.C. Council member Jack Evans, following allegations that he used his power as a public official to solicit business for his private consulting firm. If D.C. is granted statehood, Evans will become a state legislator, a possibility that many other legislators are unhappy with.
The main reason residents and officials of Washington, D.C. want statehood for the district is because they want representation in Congress. Without a statehood status, residents are expected to follow the laws of the land without having any say in what they are and while living in the shadow of the very hill where these laws are born. Congress also has authority over the city’s budget and veto power over any legislation passed by the city council. CUA student Matthew D’Ortona proposes a different solution to the issue altogether: to resolve the issue of taxation without representation without having to deal with the complications of granting D.C. statehood.
“[Residents] serve in the military and pay taxes but have yet to be granted the chance to have representatives in Congress. I think that granting statehood may undermine the reason D.C. is a separate non-state entity,” D’Ortona says. “But the people here definitely need to be given the rights associated with statehood.”
President of CUA’s College Republicans Michael Klein suggests a different path should be taken to more easily reach the desired goal.
“The Constitution sets forth the methods to amend it, and because it states that Congress has jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, anyone who wants D.C. statehood should seek an amendment.” Klein continues, “Changing the Senate rules is not the way to make D.C. a state.”While this initiative is unlikely to advance any time soon without the support of the Republican majority in Congress, this hearing represents momentum on this issue unlike it has before, and supporters believe a statehood status for Washington, D.C. remains within arms’ reach.