Officials in Washington, DC are gearing up for a Congressional hearing later this week on legislation that would grant the U.S. capital city official statehood status.
The Washington, DC Admission Act, aptly named H.R. 51, will be debated by the House's Committee on Oversight and Reform on Thursday — the first hearing on DC statehood in 26 years — and is widely supported by local leaders. Mayor Muriel Bowser and scores of local veterans on Monday kicked off the week by marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was lined with custom U.S. flags adorned with a 51st white star, in a demonstration to rally support for the pending bill.
"We basically live in the shadow of the Congress and the capital of the free world, and we don't participate in our democracy," said Bowser.
U.S. flags fly with 51 stars along Pennsylvania Ave. as part of a display in support of statehood for Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock
Despite having a locally-elected mayor and a 13-member city council, Washington DC remains a federal district and has no voting representation in Congress. The District, which has a greater population than both Vermont and Wyoming, has no presence in the Senate and is represented by a single non-voting member in the House. Congress also retains the authority to review local legislation before it becomes law and has control over the city's budget.
"For 218 years, Washingtonians have lived in their nation's capital – yet we are not equal," DC's Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the sponsor of H.R. 51, said in a video to supporters this week. "We pay the highest federal taxes per capita of any jurisdiction in the country, and our residents have served in all our country's wars. But right now, the District of Columbia does not have … the ability to govern ourselves without congressional interference. That's wrong – and it needs to change."
If enacted, H.R. 51 would grant city residents a voting member in the House, two senators, and full control over local governance. The Capitol, federal buildings, and national monuments would, however, remain under control of the federal government since the Constitution requires the seat of U.S. government be located in a federal district.
The bill currently has 219 Democratic co-sponsors and enjoys the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
"For too long, the residents of the District of Columbia have served our nation in uniform, paid taxes and contributed to the economic power and success of our country while being denied the full enfranchisement that is their right," Pelosi said in a statement when H.R. 51 was introduced in January.
The chance of DC gaining statehood through Congressional action, however, remains slim given the GOP's steadfast objections. The opposition largely stems from a fear that residents of the city — 90.9 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — will send Democratic lawmakers to Congress and shift the balance of power. In June, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the push for DC statehood was part of the Democrat's "full-bore socialism" agenda.
Critics have also objected to the shrinking of the federal district, a territory that James Madison called for in The Federalist No. 43 to ensure that Congress can govern without interference from other levels of government. In August, however, the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that H.R. 51 was "constitutionally permissible" and a "valid and defensible exercise of congressional authority."
Other opponents have argued for an alternative plan that would allow residential areas of DC to join the District's neighboring states, Maryland and Virginia. Mayor Bowser, however, rejected the idea, saying bluntly that "giving up our identity as a sovereign jurisdiction" is no compromise.
Supporters of DC statehood rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in April 2016. Photo Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Shutterstock
Statehood is also widely supported by residents of the District. In 2016, roughly 80 percent of Washingtonians voted in favor of the city council's proposal to become the 51st U.S. state. H.R. 51 is also backed by the Karl A. Racine, DC's attorney general, who said Tuesday that the lack of federal representation is "un-American, undemocratic, and unfair."
Thursday's hearing will feature a number of D.C. leaders, including Bowser and Norton.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and called for the hearing on H.R. 51, said "We must protect the rights of everyone across the country, including the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who live in our nation's capital … I will work closely with our leadership to move this legislation onto the House floor."