DC's long-simmering statehood push begins in Congress

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2021 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, testifies at the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing, on D.C. statehood, Monday, March 22, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/Pool via CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON – Washington, D.C.'s bid for statehood finally got a congressional hearing Monday, but Mayor Muriel Bowser's clashes with Republicans on the panel made clear that the issue is far from settled.

Republicans accused Democrats of a cynical power play, claimed statehood was never the intention of the country’s Founding Fathers, and insisted that Congress doesn’t even have the right to grant statehood to D.C.

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Bowser argued that Washingtonians' lack of representation in Congress was "one of the remaining glaring civil rights issues of our time.”

Supporters of D.C.'s quest for statehood believe the time is right to bring the long-simmering and racially charged idea to fruition. It would give D.C. two senators and a fully voting member of the House. The District historically votes Democratic.

“We dare to believe that D.C. statehood is on the horizon,” said the District's long-serving, nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who wrote the bill and said it has overwhelming support in the House.

Bowser spent much of Monday's four-hour hearing by the House oversight committee in a series of sometimes pointed exchanges with Republican committee members.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., repeatedly interrupted Bowser's answers, at one point saying, "You completely answered my question, so please don't continue.”

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., also interrupted Bowser's responses, then told the committee chair he would change the subject because “she won't answer this.”

Bowser heatedly replied, “SHE is happy to answer your question.”

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., sought to subvert the District’s “taxation without representation” slogan that adorns local license plates. He asked Bowser if District residents would be OK with the current situation if they didn’t have to pay federal taxes — similar to the residents of Puerto Rico or American Samoa.

“The District is proud to pay its fair share of taxes,” she said. “We’re not trying to shirk our responsibilities.”

Monday’s contentious hearing provided a preview of a debate that may come to dominate the national political discourse. The racially charged subtext was impossible to miss: Washington’s Black Lives Matter affiliate live-tweeted the hearing. The local BLM chapter is a longtime critic of Bowser, but found itself allied with her for the day, accusing Hice at one point of “grasping at racist straws.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a committee member, noted that although D.C. is no longer majority Black, at 46%, it would immediately become the blackest state in the country. “D.C. statehood is a racial-justice issue,” she said.

Republicans on the panel leaned heavily on the testimony of Zack Smith, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Smith said Congress does have the authority to admit new states, but in his analysis this authority would be irrelevant for the unique case of Washington since the federal district was described and created in Article 1 of the Constitution itself. Therefore, Smith argued, the normal congressional route to statehood is invalid and it can only be achieved through a constitutional amendment.

“No other state owes its existence to a provision of the Constitution. No other state is in this unique position of the District of Columbia,” he said.

Smith also argued that the Founding Fathers never wanted statehood for D.C. and always intended it to be a federal district under congressional oversight “to preserve the safety and security of the federal government.”

Multiple Republican legislators referenced the idea of retrocession — a proposal whereby most of the District would be reabsorbed back into Maryland. Both Bowser and Norton said that neither residents of Washington nor Maryland were interested in that.

Washington has long chafed under its relationship with Congress, which has the power to essentially veto or alter any local laws. Washington's population is larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont and its estimated 712,000 residents pay federal taxes, vote for president and serve in the armed forces, but have no voting representation in Congress.

“All we are asking of you is to correct an anomaly of our history,” Bowser told the committee.

The limitations of Washington’s reality were put in stark relief last summer during a series of angry protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody and against general police brutality. After a night of widespread vandalism, President Donald Trump usurped Bowser’s authority and called in a massive multi-agency federal force to downtown Washington. The law enforcement forces cleared peaceful protesters from a public street so Trump could pose for a photo outside a church.

Bowser on Monday didn’t mention Trump by name, but said last year showed that any president could “impose his will on the people of the District of Columbia, squashing the voices of their elected officials and squashing their laws. That’s anti-democratic. It’s un-American and it has to be fixed now.”

On Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters physically overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police and invaded the Capitol building, Bowser did not have the authority of a governor to call in the National Guard. Instead that request went to the upper levels of the Pentagon and there was a notable delay in the Guard deployment while dozens of D.C. police officers rushed into the building as reinforcements.

Bowser at the time quickly pointed out the ironies of Washington residents risking their lives to defend a Congress where they didn’t have a vote.

Norton claims she has enough supporters to easily get the bill through the House, and it would squeak through the Senate if no Democrats break ranks and the vote falls along purely party lines. And all indications Monday were that a purely partisan fight is what lies ahead.

“This bill is about two new Senate seats,” said ranking Republican committee member James Comer. “There's not a single Republican in Congress, in the House or the Senate, that supports this bill.”