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Harvard Journal of African American Policy

Topic / Democracy and Governance

Groundbreaking D.C. Statehood Congressional Hearing

For the first time in 25 years, the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on D.C. statehood.[1] Though over 700,000 people live in our nation’s capital, D.C. is represented by just one non-voting delegate in the House and no one in the Senate.[2][3] On September 19, 2019, months after the Democratic Party gained control of the House, the Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing titled “H.R. 51: Making D.C. the 51st State”.[4] Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who introduced H.R. 51 – Washington, D.C. Admission Act, chaired the hearing.[5] H.R. 51 would admit the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth and thus would grant D.C. residents full congressional voting representation.[6] Under this bill, the new D.C. state would include most of the current D.C. territory, but not certain federal areas.[7] For instance, the United States Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House would be in a two-square-mile federal enclave.[8] As of January 2020, this bill has 221 Democratic and zero Republican cosponsors.[9] This bill is supported by 102 national organizations.[10]

Many of the same partisan points used in the past were made at this hearing. Committee Democrats supported statehood as an overdue fix to an anomaly. Republicans argued that statehood is unconstitutional. Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) said that D.C. could become a state via a constitutional amendment.[11] Republicans also stated that corruption causes D.C. to not be fit for full voting rights.[12] They also felt that granting D.C. the right to vote for members of Congress would unfairly provide Democrats with additional votes in Congress.[13] Statehood proponents argued the actual reason why Republicans oppose full congressional voting representation is due to the many African-American and Democratic residents in D.C. African-American residents are 46.4% of D.C.’s population and are the most populous racial group.[14] D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said during her testimony, “It is true that we are more brown and more liberal than some of you, but denying statehood would be unfair, no matter who was affected.”[15]

In September 2014, spurred by then-President Barack Obama’s support of D.C. statehood, the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on “Equality for the District of Columbia: Discussing the Implications of S. 132, the New Columbia Admission Act of 2013.”[16][17] The hearing was the first in over twenty years on D.C. statehood but it was not well attended by senators. Only two senators attended —Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) who cosponsored the bill and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who attended to criticize the bill.[18] Carper said, “My goal for this hearing is to educate a new generation of people about this injustice and restart the conversation about finding a more thoughtful solution.”[19] Opponents of the bill questioned its seriousness and the constitutionality of D.C. statehood.[20]

The D.C. statehood campaign began in April 2016 when Mayor Bowser announced a new attempt at D.C. statehood.[21] The New Columbia Statehood Commission (the Commission), consisting of Mayor Bowser, D.C.’s Council Chair, and the three members of D.C.’s shadow congressional delegation, was created to support D.C.’s attempts at statehood.[22][23] The Commission announced that the District of Columbia would seek to become a state.[24] After town hall meetings were held, a District-wide constitutional convention occurred for three days.[25] Then, the Commission adopted a constitution and state boundaries.[26] In November 2016, 79 percent of D.C. residents voted in support of statehood.[27] However, after Republicans gained control of the presidency and both congressional chambers, Bowser ended the campaign. She promised to be prepared “for when we ha[ve] like-minded people elected in the White House and in Congress.”[28]

There appears to be more interest in the push for D.C. statehood in 2019 than in 2016. Most of the members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform attended the 2019 hearing. Eighteen of the 25 Democratic committee members and 14 of the 18 Republican committee members attended at least a portion of the hearing.[29] Many current D.C. Council members were also present.[30] The line to enter the hearing room was long, and the hearing was broadcasted in two overflow rooms and outside in the Spirit of Justice Park.[31][32]

Mayor Bowser has also renewed her calls for statehood. On September 16, 2019, Mayor Bowser led a parade supporting statehood.[33] Her weekly newsletter encouraged people to attend the House hearing and to wear the D.C. flag colors.[34] To mark the hearing, Mayor Bowser’s Administration placed more than 100 American flags with 51 stars—one extra star denoting D.C.’s desire for voting representation—on Pennsylvania Avenue.[35] After the hearing ended, D.C. supporters marched from Chinatown to the National Mall.[36]

The Senate also acted on statehood in 2019. In February 2019, Senator Carper introduced S.631, a D.C. statehood bill.[37] As of January 2020, this legislation has 34 Democratic, one Independent, and zero Republican cosponsors.[38] Democratic and Independent cosponsors include current and past 2020 Presidential candidates who are currently serving in the Senate: Michael Bennet (D-CO), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).[39] All of the senators who were or are still running for President cosponsor the bill.

It is encouraging that the 2019 House hearing occurred, but D.C. is unlikely to become a state soon. H.R. 51 could pass the House but it would not pass the Senate.[40] Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell derided D.C. statehood as “full-bore socialism.”[41] Even if the bill passed both congressional chambers, it would not be signed into law by the current President.[42] In addition, there is low support for D.C. statehood outside of D.C. In July 2019, a Gallup poll reported that 64 percent of Americans oppose D.C. statehood.[43] D.C. residents remain clear—they want D.C. statehood. While testifying during the 2019 hearing Kerwin Miller, a resident of D.C., said that, “The reality is that we’re all second-class citizens who don’t have the rights that every other American has in the United States, and it’s imperative that other members all across the United States see our plight and fight with us.”[44]

A longer article on the topic of D.C. voting rights will be included in the 2019-20 volume of the Harvard Kennedy School Journal of African American Policy.





















[21] Musgrove, George D. (2017). “Statehood is Far More Difficult”: The Struggle for D.C. Self-Determination, 1980–2017. Washington History. Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2017). Pp. 4







[28] Musgrove, p. 4.