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H.R. 51 Hearing: The Washington DC Admission Act

This post was contributed by Anne Anderson, Chair, LWVDC Committee for Full Rights for DC Citizens.

September 19th dawned crisp and bright as DC citizens streamed into the Rayburn HOB to be present at the hearing conducted by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.  The halls rapidly filled, the 2 overflow rooms filled, and then people went on over to the Spirit of Justice Park, just south of Rayburn, to join their fellow statehood supporters to watch the hearing on a big screen.

DC Statehood Hearing

This hearing was the first one held by the House in 26 years to consider the issue of admitting the residential and commercial parts of the District of Columbia as a new state—leaving a smaller District of Columbia intact that surrounds the federal buildings such as the Capitol, Supreme Court, White House, Senate and House office Buildings, and the monuments on the national mall.  By keeping a smaller federal district, the bill maintains the constitutionally required federal seat of government and fully enfranchises the 700,000+ people who currently live in DC by admitting the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth (named for Frederick Douglass, a long-time resident of DC and fierce civil rights advocate).

Currently, DC is ultimately controlled by Congress because of the “District Clause” in the Constitution that declares in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 that Congress will: …exercise exclusive legislative jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States…  When Congress moved to the District in 1801 and passed the Organic Act, DC residents became disenfranchised, having no representation in the national legislature and no local governance, a long-term example of voter suppression.  H.R. 51 would admit the new state, bringing fully equal citizenship to DC residents since they would then be entitled to 2 senators and as many representatives as their population requires.  A previous attempt in 1993 was defeated on the House floor, 277-153.

This latest effort to gain statehood for the people of DC officially began in 2016 with the passage of a referendum (86% voted yes) by DC citizens that ratified a state constitution, agreed to state boundaries and a republican representative form of government, and authorized the Mayor to petition Congress for statehood.  In this Congress, H.R. 51 at this writing has 221 co-sponsors, enough to pass by co-sponsor votes alone.  160+ national organizations have endorsed the bill, including LWVUS.  There is also a companion bill in the Senate (S. 631), sponsored by Thomas Carper (D-DE) with 34 co-sponsors.

The Hearing was held on September 19, 2019, in the Rayburn House Office Building.  The Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. Elijah Cummings was unable to be there, so the Hearing was chaired by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting Delegate.  Witnesses for the majority included DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, Congressional Research Service Attorney Kenneth Thomas, and DC veteran Kerwin Miller. CATO Institute Director for Constitutional Studies Roger Pilon was the witness for the minority.

Advocates for statehood emphasized the following points:

  • This is not a partisan issue; it is a human rights and civil rights issue.  As Mayor Bowser said, “We may be more brown and more liberal than many of you, but this would be unfair in a rural area, or an industrial city in the Midwest.”
  • Unlike other non-state entities, such as US territories, DC citizens pay federal taxes, more in total than 22 states, and the highest per capita rate in the nation.  Yet they have no vote in how those taxes are apportioned.  DC is treated as if it were a federal agency, so its total budget is subject to the approval of Congress, even though only a small portion of the budget comes from federal funds which are distributed to DC as if it were a state, such as block grants for infrastructure or Medicaid.  The great majority of DC’s budget is raised through local taxes, yet Congress maintains full control of DC’s total budget.
  • DC has 700,000+ residents, more than Wyoming or Vermont, and on par with six other states.
  • The District has balanced its budget over the last 24 years, has an independent Chief Financial Officer who must certify that the budget is balanced, and also has an excellent credit rating.
  • Because the District’s budget and all laws passed by the DC Council are subject to review by Congress, members of both houses of Congress have the opportunity to institute special laws, projects, and policies in DC that often would not be accepted in their home states. One prime example is Congressional objection to the use in DC of needle exchange, a proven way to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS infections. Preventing the implementation of that program has led to a huge increase of HIV/AIDS infections.
  • The size of the District cannot be more than 10 miles square, but there is no minimum size required by the Constitution.  Congress has, through simple majority vote, reduced the size of the District twice before.  The first time was shortly after it was first established to correct a boundary issue.  The second time was in 1846 when Congress agreed to retrocede the portion originally ceded by Virginia back to Virginia. Again, this was done after a simple majority vote, with the people living there having voting to retrocede and the state of Virginia agreeing to take back the territory.

Mr. Thomas from the Congressional Research Service outlined three parts of the Constitution that are involved:  The Admission Clause, the District Clause and the 23rd Amendment.

  1. The Admission Clause says that Congress can admit new states and that new states cannot be made out of already existing states.  He noted that there is no specific language in the cessation bill that gave Maryland land to the federal government that indicates that Maryland has any rights to the ceded territory if it were used other than as the federal district.
  2. The District Clause has no minimum size for the federal district and his opinion is that the Founding Fathers left it up to Congress to decide what size would be required.
  3. The 23rd Amendment gives 3 electoral votes to DC, so the small number of people living in the newly drawn smaller federal district would have enormous power in presidential elections if the Amendment remained in force.

Mr. Pilon, the minority witness in opposition, opened his presentation by noting that the bill would not be going anywhere because of the Republican-held Senate.  His main point was that making DC a state would require a constitutional amendment because the founding fathers included the federal district in the Constitution as a special enclave.  So, because it is in a special category, it could not be addressed through the Admissions Clause because that is about territories.

Further opposition was expressed by the Republican members of the Committee, although no one disputed any of the presentations of the witnesses advocating for statehood. Instead, they focused on the following themes:

  1.  Corruption in government, both historically and today, by trying to get DC Councilmember Jack Evans brought in as a witness for the minority.  Evans is currently under federal indictment for his performance on the Metro Board.  The implication seemed to be that if individual elected officials were corrupt, then DC was not eligible to be a state.
  2. Emphasized that the Founding Fathers in their wisdom had created DC and so to change the status would require a constitutional amendment.
  3. There were other comments that focused on where Congressional staffers would park with such a small federal district, historical references that demonstrated confusion about the actual historical facts, questions about DC’s decision to allow sports gambling and questions about what was included in the new state, such as the inclusion of the Trump hotel.

The discussion of the issues among the Committee members revolved around advocates responding to points the opposition had made:

  1.  On corruption:  Advocates responded to this line of argument by referencing the many elected officials around the country who have acted improperly without having their state’s status questioned. The actions of individuals should not cause 700,000+ people to continue to be disenfranchised.
  2. On requiring a Constitutional amendment:  Advocates noted that 37 of the 50 (after the original 13) states had been admitted to the Union by Congress—none by Constitutional amendment—and that the District Clause is clear that Congress has exclusive jurisdiction over DC, therefore can admit portions of it as a state, if it so chooses.
  3.  On the 23rd Amendment:  Ms. Norton noted that upon DC becoming a state, the states would repeal the 23rd Amendment in short order, since no one would want to give DC that much power.
  4. Several members of the Committee also commented on how racism and partisanship has played a major role in the way that DC has been viewed and treated over the years. They challenged their fellow Congress members to support statehood to finally enfranchise the taxpayers who live in DC.

The next steps for H.R. 51, The Washington DC Admission Act (DC stands for Douglass Commonwealth) will be a mark-up session in committee, and a committee vote on the bill.  It is expected to pass the committee to be sent to the House floor for a vote sometime in 2020.

This legislation is a historic opportunity to ensure that DC residents are no longer disenfranchised. Stand with the residents of DC and sign our petition to support DC Statehood.