Democrats Push to Make Washington, D.C., the Fifty-first State
In the coming days weeks, the House will vote on, and likely pass, H.R. 51, a bill that would make Washington, D.C., the fifty-first state. The bill, which has two hundred co-sponsors, was introduced by Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who for nearly thirty years has served as the non-voting delegatee for D.C.’s single at-large district. During her time in Congress, Holmes Norton has introduced more than a dozen statehood bills; this will be the first since 1993 to receive a vote. But because Washington, D.C., is not a state, Holmes Norton cannot vote on her own bill or on final passage of other legislation on the House floor.
In the Senate, a companion piece of legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, has twenty-eight co-sponsors, including all of that chamber’s candidates for President: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. A few weeks ago, I asked Warren about her interest in statehood and why she thinks the issue should galvanize Democrats. “It matters,” she said. “Here’s an example. In 2017, when Republicans tried to rip away health care from millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of people in D.C., Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton didn’t have a vote. This is not right. The right to vote is at the heart of our democracy.”
Warren noted, too, that Congress has authority to overturn the district’s laws, which Republicans have exercised more boldly in recent years. “A Republican-led Congress has actually overturned laws that the people of the District of Columbia have determined through the democratic process that they want,” she said, noting that Congress has effectively blocked laws on domestic partnerships, providing abortion services, and legalizing medical marijuana. Warren added, “It’s not simply that American citizens aren’t getting representation. They’re actually being rolled over by a Republican-led Congress that wants to make their own decisions about how the people of D.C. should live.”
Josh Burch, a co-founder of the group Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, says that the revival of the Dornan Amendment, an appropriations rider that prevents D.C. from using its own money to fund abortions, was a key moment for statehood activists. For the first two years of the Obama Administration, while Democrats controlled Congress, the rider was jettisoned in appropriations bills. But during negotiations to avert a government shutdown in 2011, the House Speaker, John Boehner, demanded that President Barack Obama and the Democrats reinstate the amendment. Obama agreed.
“Obama infamously said, I’m not happy about it but I’ll give you D.C., ” Burch recalled. “That was my ‘Oh, shit’ moment, where I think we felt like the national Democratic Party had been supportive of our rights, but, because they were still allowed to, they would use them as a bargaining chip for things completely unrelated to us.”
For Holmes Norton, another clarifying moment had come in 2009, when Democrats were prepared to pass the D.C. Voting Rights Bill, which would have given D.C. a vote in the House. Then the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to include a provision that would have overturned the city’s gun-control laws. “That was very heartbreaking,” Holmes Norton told me. “Since then, we’ve just gone for full-fledged statehood.”
Most Republicans, predictably, are less open to the idea. When, in 2016, the Washington Post’s editorial board asked the Presidential candidate John Kasich why he was opposed to giving D.C. voting representatives, he said, “What it really gets down to, if you want to be honest, is because they know that’s just more votes in the Democratic Party.” He was indisputably right—Hillary Clinton went on to win more than ninety per cent of D.C.’s vote in 2016. And, though H.R. 51 will likely pass in the House, Republicans will not take it up in the Senate. Even a Democratic President with a Democratic House and a simple Senate majority in 2021 would likely have to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass such a bill.
Republican opposition aside, though, Holmes Norton and statehood advocates are beginning this latest push under favorable conditions. On Friday, the House passed H.R. 1, a large package of pro-democracy reforms—including public campaign financing and automatic voter registration—advanced by Democrats. The bill also contained a non-binding endorsement of statehood for Washington, D.C. This made H.R. 1’s passage the first time that a house of Congress has backed statehood for the district. Both H.R. 1 and H.R. 51 have arrived at a moment when disenfranchisement, particularly for African-Americans—who make up forty-seven per cent of D.C.’s population—has become a galvanizing issue for Democrats. In House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement backing H.R. 51, she drew a connection between that bill and the Party’s effort to protect minority voters at the polls. “Democrats will restore every American’s right to be heard at the ballot box,” she wrote. “Whether they are citizens of our nation’s capital or live in historically marginalized communities across the country, Democrats are working to pass bold, ambitious legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, finally grant full voting rights and statehood to the District of Columbia and bring back integrity to Washington to ensure our government works for everyone.”
H.R. 51 has also arrived at a moment when progressives and other voices on the left are pushing the Democratic Party to adopt structural reforms and strategies that would facilitate the passage of bold left-wing legislation, within a federal government designed to thwart sudden change. One of the more prominent advocates of this strategy is David Faris, a professor of political science at Roosevelt University, who has urged Democrats to support statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, and even to consider breaking up the state of California. “The Constitution’s unchangeable writ that each state have an equal number of senators means that no matter how many more votes Democrats get nationally, they are going to win the Senate only during wave election years, and then probably only for a relatively brief period of time,” Faris wrote in his book “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,” from 2018. “Therefore, to make any lasting changes to U.S. politics and society, Democrats are going to have to admit more states to the union and create further entities out of the ones that already exist. And they must start with Washington, D.C.”
Mainstream Democrats have yet to openly adopt this strategy. But there are clear signs, beyond support for H.R. 51, that some in the Party are thinking more ambitiously about statehood. On October 6th, the day that Brett Kavanaugh—a Supreme Court nominee who was appointed by a President who lost the national popular vote, and confirmed by senators representing a minority of the country—was sworn in to the Supreme Court, Senator Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, endorsed statehood for D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa. “One of our highest medium term priorities must be to enfranchise—to empower, Americans,” he wrote on Twitter.
Partisan strategizing has long influenced the statehood process. Frances Lee, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, points to the slew of states that were added by Republicans in the decades following the Civil War—which had itself been fuelled by conflict over the admission of slave states and free states. “Republicans tried to stack the Senate by admitting Republican-leaning states,” Lee noted. “And so for the latter half of the nineteenth century, Republicans were able to protect their Senate majority even while they would lose control of the House or lose Presidential elections. That’s admitting North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada—all these really small states. They’re still small!” In 1959, Hawaii and Alaska were granted statehood effectively in tandem, ending years of negotiations between pro- and anti-civil-rights legislators, who assumed that the admission of multiracial Hawaii would deliver reliable votes against segregation.
In Washington’s case, there remains a divide between statehood advocates who believe success will lie in overcoming factional divisions and those open to owning them. Holmes Norton hopes that consensus can be built on the democratic merits of statehood alone. “Somehow or the other,” she told me, “the overriding issue of whether you could deny people paying federal income taxes and do not have equal rights has to rise to the level where people are not intimidated by it and where people don’t think that they will be endangered by it.
Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, has embraced the argument made by both statehood-supportive progressives and their conservative critics. “The argument is that if American citizens get to vote, then the Senate might be more progressive,” she says. “Yes! That’s right. The Senate might be more responsive to American citizens. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.”
But, to get to democracy as it should work, Democrats will have to push statehood through democracy as it is. The House vote on H.R. 51 will be an important first step in building the public’s awareness of an issue of real salience to all those troubled by how undemocratic our democracy can be.