House Democrats Pass D.C. Statehood, Launching Bill into Uncharted Territory

Yulissa Ocampo, Writer

For the second time in history, the House has passed legislation to make the District of Columbia the nation’s 51st state. Democrats unanimously approved Delegate Eleanor Norton’s Washington, D.C. Admission Act, describing it as “a bid to restore equal citizenship to the residents of the nation’s capital and rectify a historic injustice.” Norton told colleagues that they had a moral obligation to pass the bill. “This Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, D.C. statehood is within reach for the first time in history,”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where supporters hope to break new ground, including a potential vote in that chamber. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer pledged Tuesday that “we will try to work a path to get statehood done,” and the White House asked Congress in a policy statement to pass the legislation as swiftly as possible. The political odds remain daunting, with the Senate requiring the support of 60 senators to advance legislation. Republicans, who hold 50 seats, have branded the bill as a Democratic power grab because it would create two Senate seats for the mainly Democratic district. Not even all the Senate Democrats have backed the bill as the clock ticks toward the 2022 midterm election. Still, the unprecedented support from Democrats nationwide, including in the White House, has energized supporters. “We have a moment before us that has never existed for the statehood movement,” said Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood.” We can pat ourselves on the back and celebrate the House vote, and we should. But really that needs to be short-lived, because we have a lot of work to make this a reality in the next year and a half.”

The House passed the statehood bill for the first time last year, also without any Republican votes. Since then, sustained racial justice demonstrations and a broad focus on voting rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election have elevated the cause. Norton said this year’s vote felt even more significant than last year’s because awareness of the District’s situation seems to be growing. “It’s now begun to excite the country,” she said in an interview earlier this week. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said lawmakers who voted for statehood made the decision to believe in a stronger, more inclusive democracy. “This vote comes at a critical time when Americans nationwide are eager to deliver on the promise of liberty and justice for all,” Bowser said. “For centuries, an incremental approach to equality in America has delayed this promise for too many years. Now is the time for bold action.” 

The Democrats’ unity on the bill completes an extraordinary evolution since the first statehood vote in 1993, when the majority of Democrats joined Republicans in voting no. During a debate Thursday morning, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations of discrimination, given the unavoidable reality that most District residents would be likely to vote for Democrats. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly said, “So what, how somebody votes cannot be a test of whether they have the right to vote in a democracy.” Rep. James Comer said D.C. statehood was “not really voting representation” but in fact “about Democrats consolidating their power in Washington.” He and many others maintained that D.C statehood would be unconstitutional, because the creation of a federal district and Congress’s authority over it is expressed in the Constitution; Democrats counter that argument by pointing out that H.R. 51 maintains Congress’s power over the shrunken federal district. “They don’t see taxation without representation,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said to one of his GOP colleagues. “They don’t see military service without representation, when tens of thousands of people have served the nation in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. All that they see is two new liberal Democrat senators.”

At one point, Rep. Mondaire Jones accused Republicans of racism in their opposition to statehood, recalling comments by GOP lawmakers that D.C. was not well-rounded or working-class enough to be a state and lacked a landfill. On Thursday, Rep. Glenn Grothman said the city does not have manufacturing, agriculture or natural resources. “I have had enough of my colleagues’ racist insinuations that somehow the people of Washington D.C., are incapable or even unworthy of our democracy,” Jones said. “One of my House Republicans colleagues said that D.C. couldn’t be a state because the district doesn’t have a landfill. My goodness, with all the racist trash my colleagues have brought to the debate, I can see why they’re worried about having a place to put it.” Republicans erupted, asking that Jones’s words be taken down. Jones agreed to withdraw them. Advocates and city leaders have largely focused on D.C. statehood as a racial justice and civil rights issue — “probably the most urgent voting rights issue of our time,” as 51 for 51 Director Stasha Rhodes put it.

Advocates often point out that the District, once nicknamed “Chocolate City” for its thriving Black culture and majority population, would have the largest proportion of African Americans of any state. “There’s a lot of lip service around how we’re going to move the needle on racial justice in our country,” Rhodes said. “The real way to move the needle is on structural democracy reform. There is no better step to start with than D.C statehood.” Republican senators from states with fewer populations have worried that D.C. statehood would “dilute” their state’s power, as Sen. Steve Daines put it this week. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham have said they would prefer having D.C retroceded to Maryland, which Maryland has not yet supported. Hopes of finding a way to pass the bill solely with Democratic support decreased this month. Norton said she remains hopeful the Democrats will find a way to seize on their thin Senate majority, and President Biden’s support, to pass statehood, but she acknowledged that it could take years. “Bills as extraordinary as this bill usually take more than a session or two to pass,” she said. “So we’re not at all discouraged.”