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D.C. Statehood Faces Biggest Hurdle as Vote Approaches in U.S. Senate

June 22, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
(Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — District of Columbia political leaders argued their case Tuesday for statehood before the U.S. Senate, where the proposal faces long odds among Republicans.

Officially, the argument focuses on whether D.C. statehood is constitutionally a matter of discretion for Congress.

Unofficially, Republicans are warning statehood would tip the balance of power to give Democrats a solid majority in Congress.

“Today’s hearing is not based on political posturing,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

He cautioned that lawmakers should consider the permanent consequences of statehood rather than short-term issues of whether Republicans or Democrats prevail in congressional votes.

The District of Columbia has no voting members in the House or Senate, only a non-voting delegate. In addition, any decisions by the D.C. Council can be overridden by a congressional committee.

The District’s local lawmakers say the lack of congressional votes and independence for its legislative decisions violate the fundamental principles that motivated America’s founding fathers.

Peters, who supports statehood, agreed when he said, “Our country was founded on the principle of no taxation without representation.”

The bill that seeks to create the District of Columbia as the 51st state is the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, S.51. The House already approved its version of the same bill on April 22.

It has 45 cosponsors in the Senate, the highest number in history after similar proposals failed consistently for more than a half-century. Skopos Labs, a New York data analysis firm that predicts outcomes for policy proposals, says the Washington, D.C. Admission Act has a 3 percent chance of being enacted.

One of its critics is Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who said, “I have both practical and constitutional concerns about making D.C. a state.”

Congress carved the District of Columbia out of parts of Maryland and Virginia, giving it official recognition as the nation’s capital in 1801. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says the 

District is under exclusive authority of the federal government.

Congress sought to create a federal district that was free of the political influence of any single state.

Article 1 was modified by the 23rd Amendment in 1961. It gave the right to vote in presidential elections to residents of the District of Columbia. It also granted the District electors in the Electoral College.

Much of the discussion during the Senate hearing Tuesday focused on interpreting how far the 23rd Amendment’s recognition of D.C. residents’ voting rights could be extended.

Portman and other Republicans suggested that statehood would require a new constitutional amendment to override the federal government’s control of the District of Columbia.

“We cannot just legislate over these constitutional provisions,” Portman said.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser disagreed.

“There is no legal or constitutional barrier to D.C. statehood,” she said.

Among the 37 U.S. territories that became states, none required a constitutional amendment, Bowser said.

“It is fully within Congress’ power under the Constitution to make D.C. a state under S.51,” she said.

She also said the District of Columbia has changed since it was established out of a largely rural area.

Now it has more than 700,000 residents who form the hub of one of the nation’s largest urban areas. They also pay more taxes per capita than any state, Bowser said.

They tend to vote heavily Democratic.

Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the District’s Democratic non-voting delegate to Congress, said support for statehood has reached a level where it would face little opposition.

“Fifty-four percent of the American people, more than half of the American people, support D.C. statehood,” Holmes-Norton told the Senate committee.

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