At Statehood Hearing, One Senator Said D.C. Is Too Wealthy For Full Representation Car dealerships didn't make it into the debate, but one GOP senator proposed that D.C. residents are too wealthy to grant the city statehood.
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At Statehood Hearing, One Senator Said D.C. Is Too Wealthy For Full Representation

Mayor Muriel Bowser, testifies at the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing, on D.C. statehood. Caroline Brehman/AP Photo/CQ Roll Call hide caption

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Caroline Brehman/AP Photo/CQ Roll Call

Two months to the day after the House of Representatives passed the bill that would make D.C. the 51st state, the legislation moved into a Senate committee for the second time in history.

The nearly three-hour hearing — the first since statehood came before a committee in 2014 – drew the usual advocates, like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Eleanor Holmes Norton, but only about half of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee membership. Those that did attend, notably Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), repeated lines off a greatest hits album of anti-statehood arguments: D.C. statehood is a political "power grab" by Democrats, statehood is unconstitutional, and making D.C. a state through a congressional bill undermines the intent of the Founding Fathers. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) made one headline-grabbing remark when he suggested that people voluntarily move to D.C. knowing they lose congressional representation (seemingly ignoring that many Washingtonians are born and live for generations in D.C.)

"It's been well known that when you move to Washington, D.C., at any point, you're moving to an area that doesn't have two senators or a House member," Lankford said.

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While there was no mention of D.C.'s selection of car dealerships or the city's agricultural and mining industries, Johnson did throw in a new argument Tuesday: D.C. residents are too wealthy to deserve full voting representation in Congress.

"There's certainly poverty here, but this District is not made of many disadvantaged individuals," Johnson said, citing D.C.'s average median income of $92,000 (although the U.S. Census reports $86,420 as of 2019). "This is an elite group of people here, they have a vested interest in the power of the federal government." (Just last week, Martha's Table, a local food distribution program, told DCist that during the pandemic, they went from giving out 2,000 meals a week to 2,000 meals a day.)

Bowser attempted to push back on Johnson's assertion, saying "it would be incorrect to say that D.C. residents have more of an interest in the federal government than other Americans," before Johnson interrupted.

Johnson went on to press Bowser about last summer's protests against police brutality, inquiring whether she had an estimate of the cost property damage incurred or a number of arrests made. He also asked whether D.C. police used "geolocation," or other means to locate protesters in their home states in order to arrest them, "like [officials] did with January 6."

"I'm glad to hear that you're opposed to riotous behavior, whether it happened on 16th Street, or here at the Capitol," Bowser said in return, as Johnson attempted to interrupt her. Bowser ultimately couldn't provide an estimate on property damage or how many individuals were arrested.

The meager attendance at the Senate hearing followed a lively debate during a House committee hearing in March, and the passage of the House bill, HR 51, along strict party lines in April. While HR 51 was a cause for celebration for statehood advocates, getting statehood through the Senate will be a tougher battle.

Introduced by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), S 51 boasts 45 cosponsors, a record number. The last time statehood came to a Senate committee in 2014, it gained only 16 cosponsors and never made it to a vote. This time around, statehood proponents already have the House bill under their belt and unprecedented national momentum: President Joe Biden is explicitly in favor of making D.C. a state, and Democrats now control both houses of Congress.

But so long as the Senate's legislative filibuster stays in place, the bill would require a 60-member vote in the Senate – daunting odds, to put it gently. Democrats hold a razor thin majority, no GOP Senate member has come out in support of statehood, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote, recently dealt a blow to his Democratic statehood-supporting colleagues when he said he didn't support the bill. Committee member Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who was absent Tuesday, has yet to express support for the statehood bill, and penned a recent op-ed in the Washington Post arguing in favor of keeping the filibuster.

Manchin and other Republicans contend that D.C. statehood could only be gained through a constitutional amendment – an argument that received a fair share of airtime during Tuesday's hearing. The West Virginia Senator specifically takes issue with the 23rd Amendment, legislation passed in 1960 that gives D.C. three electoral college votes, thus allowing residents to participate in presidential elections. While some of the law experts testifying Tuesday took issue with the bill's plans to repeal the 23rd Amendment, 39 legal scholars recently published a joint letter stating that it passes legal muster.

University of Michigan law professor Richard Primus testified in support of S 51 on Tuesday, saying there are several legally sound ways to repeal the 23rd Amendment. He also suggested that asking whether or not the Founding Fathers would approve of D.C. statehood in 2021 is an obsolete argument.

"It's true, the founding generation didn't intend Washington D.C. to be a state, but the founding generation also didn't intend to create a situation in which 700,000 Americans would have no voting representation in Congress," Primus said. "For the founders, no principle was more central to the Constitution than representative government, and in their time, there was no conflict between that principle and that no- state status of Washington D.C. because virtually nobody lived in Washington, D.C."

Republicans in the past have been more implicit (but not always) about their partisan concerns tied to statehood – that deeply blue D.C. would gain two more seats for Democrats in the Senate. But Johnson, for his part, seemed less interested in papering over that concern.

"We can talk about what's the use of statutes, we can talk about the 23rd Amendment," Johnson said. "To me, this just seems like a naked power grab."

Others testifying in support of statehood on Tuesday — Bowser, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and CEO of the National Urban League Marc H. Morial — highlighted the injustice of D.C. residents' disenfranchisement, and recent consequences of D.C.'s non-statehood status. They noted the federal taxes that D.C. residents pay, the federal troops that were deployed in the city during last summer's protests without local approval, and the long-standing impacts of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the life of District residents.

Democrats also brought in former independent senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, to act as the political olive branch to their Republican colleagues. In his opening remarks, Lieberman acknowledged that he'd heard the Republican arguments before, regarding constitutionality and "partisan anxieties," but sees the disenfranchisement of D.C. residents as paramount to them all.

"I've heard the arguments many times over the years," Lieberman says. "All the arguments seem to me to be legalistic disputations and ultimately excuses for something that is inexcusable. The arguments against this legislation don't come near to overcoming the great principled constitutional arguments for it."

Bowser echoed the same sentiment in her opening remarks, saying "the District's call for full democracy has been drowned out by arguments that ignore the fact that the second-class status of D.C. residents is clearly an anomaly of the United States constitution, not a feature of it." (She went on to note some of the more "prosperous" arguments against D.C. statehood that she's had to hear in the past years, like when Rep. Thomas Massie (D-Ky.) was worried about the implications of statehood on his staffers' parking options.)

Despite the obstacles standing in the path to statehood, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told DCist/WAMU on Monday evening that she remains optimistic about statehood's future in the Senate, citing the national favor shifting towards statehood after the House hearing on the subject early this year.

"This Senate bill shows you that we are on our way," Norton told DCist/WAMU. "I'm not going to give currency to whatever [Republicans'] arguments are, many of them are nonsense arguments."

When asked whether she thinks there is potential to sway Manchin — arguably the biggest barrier to the bill's success in the senate — Norton had this to say: "You almost have to feel sorry for Manchin, because he's in a Republican state, and yet he's trying to be a Democrat. I think the cure for Manchin is the next election and adding more Democrats, so that we will not be so unilaterally dependent on him for almost everything that passes the Senate."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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