J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Statehood advocates rally near the Capitol prior to a House of Representatives hearing in March.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
The bill to make D.C. a state is headed to the House floor for a vote next week, after the House Committee on Oversight and Reform passed the measure on party lines during Wednesday's markup.
Markups offer legislators the chance to propose amendments to legislation. During the more than four hours of the committee's meeting, only Republicans offered amendments to HR 51, the bill in question, all of which were ultimately rejected by the Democrat-led committee.
Unlike the markup during the previous Congressional term — in which GOP members proposed amendments related to how the future state of D.C. would handle policies related to abortion, guns, and sanctuary cities — all of the amendments on Wednesday concerned the process of the District becoming a state.
Still, Democrats accused Republicans of using the measures to introduce ways for state legislatures to veto D.C. statehood (as with a measure that would have required the repeal of the 23rd Amendment, which allows D.C. residents to vote for the U.S. president, before HR 51 could go into effect), or to set specific, tight timelines for D.C. to take on responsibilities like control over its incarcerated residents or courts systems.
The partisan dynamics of the votes illustrate that statehood has not won over Republicans. Ranking Member James Comer (R-KY) was among the Republicans who referred to it as an unconstitutional power grab by liberals in a bid to create a "socialist utopia."
The real power grab, Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) contended, was Republicans blocking 712,000 U.S. citizens from voting, because they were concerned that D.C. residents tend to vote for Democrats. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) framed it as part of the GOP's national efforts to restrict access to the ballot among people of color. D.C. would be the country's only plurality-Black state.
Currently, despite having a bigger population than two states and paying more per capita in federal taxes than all 50 states, D.C. does not have full representation on Capitol Hill. Its delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, won't be able to voice her "aye" on HR 51 on the House floor because she can only vote in committees, despite writing the bill and championing it for decades. Residents have no representation in the Senate.
Congress can also meddle in the District's affairs — it can vote to overrule laws passed by the D.C. Council, a power it uses rarely. More commonly, though, federal legislators include provisions in must-pass spending laws that limit how the District can spend its locally raised funds. These so-called policy riders are why D.C. does not have a taxed and regulated recreational marijuana market or the ability to fund abortions for low-income people — local officials are hopeful these measures will be left out of a spending bill in a Congress controlled by Democrats, but no longer want to be at the whim of Capitol Hill.
D.C. residents voted overwhelmingly for statehood in 2016. Like the 37 other states that were admitted into the Union (all but the 13 original colonies), the District decided on its borders, ratified a Constitution, and started petitioning Congress for entry. The effort reached a historic first last summer, when the House passed HR 51.
HR 51 would turn D.C.'s eight wards into a state, with one representative in the House and two senators. There would still be a federal district, which would include the National Mall, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol, and would remain under congressional control.
While Republicans tend to cite constitutional arguments against D.C. statehood, former President Donald Trump said that it will "never happen unless we have some very, very stupid Republicans" because it means "two automatic Democrat" seats in the Senate. GOPers claim that the Senate seats are precisely why Democrats are united in favor of the measure.
Switching around the composition of the Senate is what Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) was trying to avoid with his amendment, which would have allowed D.C. residents to vote for Maryland's federal legislators. The formulation is similar to what existed in D.C. in the late 1700s — residents eligible to vote at the time cast a ballot for either the Virginia or Maryland delegation, depending on which state the land they lived on came from. Given that Virginia's land was retroceded back to the commonwealth in 1846, all current D.C. residents live on what was once Maryland's land, Hice reasoned.
But Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a Constitutional scholar who responded to many of the Republican arguments during the markup, objected. "I don't think if people were disenfranchised in Georgia, people would think it was satisfactory if they were allowed to vote in Florida," especially without conferring with the Florida legislature, Raskin said, adding that D.C. specifically voted for equality and self-government through statehood.
Many elected leaders in Maryland would not have been on board with Hice's amendment. As the markup was happening, the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments unanimously approved a resolution urging Congress to grant D.C. statehood. COG is comprised of regional officials in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
One notion that some Republicans returned to was the idea that D.C. would be a state with outsized power due to its proximity to the U.S. Capitol, which could be dangerous. "If D.C. became a state, it could simply refuse to protect the federal buildings from violent protesters," said Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA). Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) said that, if D.C. were a state, it would be filled with "chaos, open fires, and riots."
Raskin took particular issue with the notion that D.C. residents would endanger lawmakers, given the fact that D.C. police secured the U.S. Capitol after it was overrun by a violent mob of pro-Trump extremists on January 6. "The people of Washington, D.C. and their law enforcement came to the rescue of this Congress," said Raskin, adding that Washingtonians haven't stormed the Capitol, despite their lack of full representation. "They're doing it the right way ... Spare us the lectures on mob violence."
While HR 51 is expected to pass the House of Representatives on party lines, it faces a dicier path in the Senate. Advocates are calling for filibuster reform, so that the measure wouldn't require 60 votes to pass. However, it's not clear yet that D.C. statehood has 50 votes — there are currently 46 co-sponsors. President Joe Biden has said he will sign the bill if it arrives on his desk.
But even if it becomes law, Republicans are warning that the measure will face opposition in the courts. A letter to Biden from 22 GOP attorneys general earlier this week said that, "We will use every legal tool at our disposal" to combat D.C. statehood.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.