Every four years, on Jan. 6, Congress certifies the Electoral College votes for the next president of the United States. For every election in living memory, the Electoral College certification process proceeded without significant challenge. In 2021, though, was different: throughout the morning, an armed mob gathered in Washington, D.C., supporting baseless claims that the election was stolen. The nearest military unit, the D.C. National Guard, was not activated until about three hours after the Capitol breach. D.C. Statehood could have prevented this fiasco.
Around 12:30 p.m., Trump supporters breached the first barriers surrounding the Capitol.
Recognizing a security threat, at 1:34 p.m., D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) requested National Guard forces from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. At 1:49 p.m., Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund requested assistance from the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. The Guard was not activated.
At 2:11 p.m., insurrectionists breached the building.
At 2:22 p.m., Bowser and Sund again contacted Pentagon officials to make “an urgent, urgent, immediate request for National Guard assistance.” D.C. officials said the director of the Army staff recommended against approving the request, insisting he didn’t like “the visual” of soldiers at the Capitol.
By 3 p.m., there was an armed standoff at the door of the House chamber. Rioter Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot. Officer Brian Sicknick was brutally beaten and later died of his wounds.
Only at 3:26 p.m. was Bowser notified that her request for the National Guard had been approved. The rioters had been in the building for over an hour. Guardsmen did not depart from their armory until 5:02 p.m.
The unraveling of this violent insurrection begs a question: Why couldn’t the D.C. mayor activate her own city’s National Guard? The answer lies with D.C.’s territorial status.
D.C. is not a state but merely a federal territory. As a result, the chain of command of its National Guard is completely removed from D.C.’s government, and the president — the very man accused of inciting the riot — holds final authority on its activation. If D.C. were a state and not a territory, Bowser could have activated the guard herself.
This contorted hierarchy is just one of many consequences of the District’s status. Despite being home to more people than Wyoming, D.C. lacks voting representation in Congress. Its only congressional representation is a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. This lack of representation is particularly egregious because its residents pay more in federal taxes than 22 states — at a per capita rate higher than any state. In fact, D.C. is the only U.S. territory to pay federal income taxes at all. D.C. residents are the only citizens to face federal income taxes and the military draft without any say in what their taxes pay for or whether the United States goes to war. D.C. is the only state or territory with a plurality Black population, but it has no vote to advocate for racial equity legislation in Congress.
Even when it comes to implementing policies for its own constituents, D.C.’s hands are tied. Congress has the power to review all local laws and budgets in D.C., and it often interferes to accomplish its own political aims: overturning gun regulations, blocking needle exchange programs and restricting abortion access, as just a few examples. In 2016 alone, Congress challenged local D.C. laws 25 times.
D.C. statehood is necessary to right this systemic inequity. The 2016 D.C. Statehood Referendum passed overwhelmingly, with the approval of 79% of D.C. voters. In June 2020, House Democrats passed the historic HR 51 bill that would establish D.C. statehood. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, never even brought the legislation up for consideration.
Although Democrats now control Congress and the presidency, the passage of HR 51 remains far from assured: the Senate’s filibuster — a 60-vote requirement to consider legislation — requires 10 Republican senators to join the current 50 Democratic senators to pass bills. This rule stands in the way of equal rights for D.C.’s citizens, because congressional Republicans remain uniformly opposed to statehood. Their rationale is no secret: D.C. is overwhelmingly Democratic.
D.C. has voted for the Democratic nominee for president in every election since it was first given electoral votes in 1961. Republican lawmakers would rather D.C. citizens remain without representation than allow citizens of the District to vote for the other party, treating D.C.’s right to franchisement as a mere political game. Senators like Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have even launched racially coded attacks, suggesting D.C. residents — being a plurality Black population — are not “real people” worth listening to. Instead, a group of House Republicans have advocated policies D.C. has already rejected, like ceding the District’s land to Maryland and Virginia, to limit D.C.’s impact on the balance of power by not giving the District its own senators.
Given Republicans’ unwillingness to enfranchise D.C. citizens, statehood relies on abolishing the Senate filibuster, which itself has a racist history. The rule has been used to defend slavery, block anti-lynching laws and uphold voter suppression. While it requires only a majority to eliminate the filibuster — which the Democrats now have — key Democratic senators remain opposed to filibuster abolition, like Sens. Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
The Biden administration also seems lukewarm on the issue, with senior aides saying the president’s “preference is not to end the filibuster.” Filibuster abolition, and the subsequent enactment of D.C. statehood, hinges on convincing those power players that statehood is a cause worth eliminating the filibuster for. And, given the Senate’s unrepresentative skew — which overrepresents white voters by 8%, rural voters by 10%, and Republicans by 7% — providing D.C’s Black, urban, Democratic voters with Senate representation is critical for equal representation. Becoming a more representative democracy requires giving all our citizens democratic representation.
The response to the insurrection should not be limited to criminal investigations and security reviews. The rights of 700,000 disenfranchised D.C. residents should not be reduced to political games. D.C. statehood is long overdue. As part of adopting this city as our home, Georgetown students must do their part to support its residents’ equal rights: Hoyas should engage in local activism and contact their senators to ensure D.C. statehood becomes a top priority.
Brian Zhu is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.