A renewed push for statehood for the District of Columbia culminated with a U.S. Senate committee hearing Monday. Although a symbolic gesture, this hearing was the first on D.C. Statehood since 1993, offering prominent government officials the opportunity to argue for full representation and control for D.C. citizens.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee deliberated the New Columbia Admission Act involving two all-Democrat panels, including Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.), who serves as the non-voting delegate from the District to the House of Representatives, Mayor Vincent Gray, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. It has received 104 co-sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate, the highest level of support this bill has ever seen.
The act proposes limiting the federal district to the small areas around the White House and the Capitol, while admitting the rest of the District of Columbia, as the 51st state, giving the state a voting representative in the House and two members in the Senate.
Holmes-Norton opened the testimony by calling for equal representation for the citizens of the District.
“As the District’s elected representative to Congress … I feel it when the bell rings for votes on bills, and I cannot cast a vote for the 650,000 American citizens who live in the District, despite the $12,000 per resident they pay in federal taxes, more per capita than any other Americans,” she said at the hearing.
Mendelson also testified in support of D.C. statehood at the hearing, focusing on the thriving economy and government of the District.
“For 17 consecutive years, the District has ended its fiscal year with a budgetary surplus,” Mendelson said in his testimony. “Our city is growing, our tax base is growing, our financial reserves are healthy.”
While Holmes-Norton focused on the lack of representation for District citizens in Congress, Mendelson decried the District’s current inability to control its own affairs.
“We cannot spend without congressional appropriation, and we cannot enact local laws without congressional review,” he said. “The District government is fully capable of managing our affairs just like any state.”
Holmes-Norton noted in her testimony that she did not expect the bill to pass but with the record number of co-sponsorships, including from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and support from President Barack Obama, saw the hearing as an opportunity to draw even more attention to her cause.
“My hope is that I will be able to stir up even more activism in Congress for equal rights for D.C. residents,” she said in a Sept. 11 press release on September.
Obama voiced his support for D.C. statehood at a town hall-style event at a public school in northwest Washington in July.
“I’m in D.C., so I’m for it,” he said.
However, Obama did not send a representative to the hearing.
Mark Rom, director of Georgetown’s masters program in American government, said that statehood was, for all intents and purposes, impossible.
“In the current political environment and for the foreseeable future, although none of us can really foresee the future, there’s no way Congress would approve it. It’s so Democratic. It’s two Democratic votes in the Senate,” Rom said. “Control is so closely divided. It’s important for [Republicans] not to give up additional seats, and the Democrats would do the same thing if the positions were reversed.”
However, Rom pointed out that as the statehood movement aims for control for citizens in the District, total home rule could allow D.C. to achieve those goals equally well.
“If Congress gave them complete authority over their jurisdiction in all ways that other states have authority over their jurisdiction, they could set their own budget, they could establish their own policies, they could do whatever programs they want,” Rom said.
On the representation side, he pointed to the 2007 District of Columbia Voting Rights Act, which proposed to expand the House of Representatives by one seat in the District and one seat in Utah, which would grant representation without unbalancing the political parties in Congress or giving the city too much power.
Political commentator Mark Plotkin, a supporter for statehood, was not optimistic about D.C.’s chances at statehood in the near future.
“If we want to be honest with ourselves, nothing has changed, not in my lifetime, not in 50 years,” Plotkin told The Washington Post.
Only two senators attended the hearing, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), who introduced the bill and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Nineteen Senate Democrats have signed Carper’s bill, not nearly enough to pass a bill through the Senate.
“I’m not sure [statehood] should ever happen. D.C.’s weird. It’s not a state; it’s a large city, but there are plenty of other cities that are larger that don’t have representation in Congress, not the kind D.C. would have,” Rom said.
Independent mayoral candidate David Catania states in his platform that he will bolster support for D.C. statehood and congressional representation. Mayoral candidate Democrat Muriel Bowser has also expressed her strong support for D.C. statehood, budget autonomy, and complete voting rights.