No Government for the People, of the People, or by the People: The Fight for D.C. Statehood Continues

By: Corey S. Peterson

Equal Voting Representation

On June 19th a sculpture of the famed D.C. resident and father of the civil rights movement, Frederick Douglass, was unveiled in the Capitol Visitor’s Center’s Emancipation Hall.  It is ironic and disheartening that while this statute of Douglass, a symbol of freedom and equality, sits in Emancipation Hall, D.C’s 618,000 residents continue to go without equal voting representation in Congress.

Fortunately, efforts to provide the District with statehood and budgetary autonomy continue to remain strong.

On January 24th Senator Tom Carper (D., Del.) introduced a D.C. statehood bill cosponsored by Assistant Majority leader Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), Secretary of the Democratic Conference Patty Murray (D., Wash.), and Senators Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), and Ben Cardin (D., Md.). The bill was formally known as the New Columbia Admission Act (S.132) and would provide for the admission of D.C. as a state into the Union. In a noteworthy move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) recently expressed his support for the bill on June 19th at the unveiling of Douglass’ statue.

The bill is currently with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee whose chairman is the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carper. Hearings on the bill have yet to be scheduled; however, Sen. Caper tweeted that hearings on D.C. statehood will be held this fall.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D., D.C.), one of the strongest advocates for D.C. statehood in Congress, introduced the House version of the New Columbia Admission Act on January 15th. Congresswoman Norton first introduced this bill in 1991. The bill has only come close to being passed once, a decade ago, in 1993 when Democrats controlled both houses.

Additional support for D.C. statehood has come from the White House. In December 2012, DC Vote, a non-profit organization fighting to secure full voting representation in Congress, filed a petition with the White House asking President Obama to replace current White House limousine license plates with those carrying the slogan “Taxation Without Representation.” The petition received 3,735 signatures.  In response to this request, the White House issued a statement noting the President’s support for efforts to “bring full representation for the people of the District of Columbia” in Congress and agreed to keep the “Taxation Without Representation” plates seen on the President’s motorcade at the January inauguration.

Unfortunately, given the current political climate on Capitol Hill, it is likely that neither Congresswoman Norton’s bill nor Senator Carper’s bill will pass this term. President Obama, the most famous D.C. resident, and Democrats on the Hill must recognize that changing license plates and issuing statements of broad support for D.C. statehood is certainly not enough to provide District residents equal voting representation in Congress.

The Fight for Budget Autonomy

Washington, D.C. is the only jurisdiction in the country that must receive approval from Congress before spending any local funds. Luckily, support for budget autonomy is widespread among District residents.

In the special election held on April 27th, 83% of voters supported a charter amendment to secure budget autonomy from Congress. However, clear support by District residents for the amendment does not guarantee its survival.  District charter amendments must go to Capitol Hill for a congressional review period. And while Congress has only overturned District laws during this review period three times in the 38 years of District home rule, Congress may still nullify the enacted amendment in an unrelated bill.

Additional support for District budget autonomy has come from the White House. President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal contains a measure that would allow the District to have permanent authority over the spending of local funds. The provision removes the requirement of congressional approval and allows the District to set its own fiscal year.

Despite this support for budget autonomy, some believe the District’s referendum has no legal force. In January, the District’s attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, asked election officials to reject the ballot referendum. Nathan explained that the referendum would go beyond the powers given to the District’s government and its voters in the charter. In a report accompanying a spending bill providing funds for the District, House Republicans agreed that the referendum for budget autonomy has little legal force. However, the House has yet to take any action to officially block the referendum.

Josh Gibson, an Adams Morgan resident and former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, recently likened the District statehood movement to the fight for gay marriage in a Washington Post op-ed. His suggestions for improving advocates’ efforts to promote D.C. statehood are sound. Supporters of D.C. statehood, including those on the Hill and in the White House, must not focus on piecemeal victories like budgetary autonomy or voting representation in Congress, but rather must view D.C. statehood as the only and ultimate goal. Allowing the District to set its own fiscal year is merely a bone being thrown to statehood advocates. Elected officials, the public, and the media lose sight of this goal when advocates focus on each independent right and benefit that accompanies statehood. The proponents of this cause must constantly remind DC residents and elected officials that while our neighbors just across the invisible District boundary in Maryland and Virginia have their views heard and their needs addressed by elected voting representative in Congress, District residents, despite their commitment to the city, have no such official voice.

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