In historic vote, House approves statehood for the District of Columbia
By Emily Cochrane
The House of Representatives voted nearly along party lines Friday to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., the first time a chamber of Congress has approved establishing the nation’s capital as a state.
The legislation, which is unlikely to advance in the Republican-led Senate, would establish a 51st state — Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named in honor of Frederick Douglass — and allow it two senators and a voting representative in the House. The National Mall, the White House, Capitol Hill and some other federal property would remain under congressional jurisdiction, with the rest of the land becoming the new state.
The vote was 232-180, with every Republican and one Democrat voting “no.”
Republicans have long opposed the move to give congressional representation to the District of Columbia, where more than three-quarters of voters are registered Democrats, but the long-suffering movement for statehood, led by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the capital’s lone nonvoting delegate, has been pressing for a vote on the matter for years.
When Democrats assumed the House majority last year, Norton secured a promise from leaders to bring up the bill for the first time in more than a quarter-century.
Anger over the Trump administration’s handling of racial justice protests — particularly the use of federal officers in the city and the violent removal of protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House — further galvanized advocates of statehood and cast a national spotlight on how much control the federal government retains over more than 700,000 residents in the District of Columbia.
“Over the last few months, the nation, and even the world, has witnessed the discriminatory and outrageous treatment of D.C. residents by the federal government,” Norton said Friday on the House floor, where she was unable to cast a vote for the bill she championed. “The federal occupation of D.C. occurred solely because the president thought he could get away with it here. He was wrong.”
The bill, which passed along party lines, is not expected to become law. The White House issued a veto threat against it Wednesday, declaring the measure unconstitutional.
Republicans in the Senate, where the legislation would have to meet a bipartisan 60-vote threshold to advance, have rejected the idea, arguing that if representation for its citizens was the sole issue, the District of Columbia should simply be absorbed into Maryland, another heavily Democratic state.
“Retrocession wouldn’t give the Democrats their real aim: two Democratic senators in perpetuity to rubber-stamp the swamp’s agenda, so you won’t hear them talk about it,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Thursday in a lengthy diatribe on the floor.
He declared that Wyoming, a state with a smaller population, was a “well-rounded, working-class state” superior to Washington, which would amount to “an appendage of the federal government” full of lobbyists and civil servants. Wyoming is more than 80% white, while the majority of the District of Columbia is composed of people of color.
The arguments against statehood on the House floor barely shifted since the full chamber last debated the merits of granting statehood to Washington more than a quarter of a century ago. Opponents questioned the constitutional merits, arguing that the Founding Fathers intentionally did not establish the nation’s capital as a state. Others questioned whether the District of Columbia was geographically and economically viable to be a state.
“Our nation’s founders made it clear that D.C. is not meant to be a state,” said Rep. Jody B. Hice, R-Ga. “They thought about it, they debated it, and they rejected it.”
Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota was the sole Democrat to join Republicans in opposing the measure Friday.
Top Democrats, several wearing masks with a symbol of the statehood movement, took to the floor to argue passionately for its passage, denouncing the disenfranchisement of Washington residents. Applause broke out on the floor as soon as the bill reached the necessary 218 threshold to pass.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at her weekly news conference in the Capitol, dismissed as shortsighted the Republican arguments that the new state would simply give Democrats a political advantage. Alaska and Hawaii, she pointed out, had entered the union as overwhelmingly Democratic and Republican states and then flipped politically.
“What the state is, that can change over time,” Pelosi said. “But the fact is, people in the District of Columbia pay taxes, fight wars, risk their lives for our democracy — and yet in this place, they have no vote in the House and Senate.”
The District of Columbia, where license plates read “Taxation Without Representation,” has long been burdened by a lack of federal representation.
The capital first earned three electoral votes and the right to vote for president in 1961 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment. The right to elect a nonvoting delegate came a decade later, but lawmakers could not agree on whether to give that delegate the right to vote, and the statehood legislation never survived a floor vote.
The disparity has gained renewed national attention during the coronavirus pandemic and the protests over racial injustice. In the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted in March, the District of Columbia received a small fraction of the funds doled out to states to help dull the economic effect of the virus because it was treated as a territory, despite customarily being granted funding as if it were a state.
And when the administration flooded the streets of Washington with National Guard forces from elsewhere and troops in riot gear during protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody, Bowser had few options this month because of how much control Congress maintains over the District of Columbia’s finances and laws.
“Denying D.C. statehood to over 700,000 residents, the majority of them Black and brown, is systemic racism,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign director of the pro-statehood group 51 for 51. “D.C. statehood is one of the most urgent civil rights and racial justice issues of our time — and we know we are on the right side of history.”
Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, told reporters at a news conference Thursday that she was “born here without a vote, but I swear I will not die here without a vote.”
The House vote, she said, would lay the groundwork for another administration to make statehood law. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said he would support the move.