Obama and DC statehood

Finally, democracy in Washington, D.C. merits a presidential mention. President Obama over the past five-and-a-half years has had a lot to say about democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the lack of democracy in D.C. has received scant or no attention at all. But last week, in response to a question at a D.C. public school, the president spoke out in favor of D.C. becoming the 51st state. His words were clear and direct, his tone sincere and convincing.

"Folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented like everybody else."

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Then he got unusually personal and, for him, emphatic:

"There has been a long movement to get D.C. statehood and I've been for it for quite some time. The politics of it end up being difficult to get through Congress, but I think it's absolutely the right thing to do."

The "politics" concerning this issue is indeed difficult and very bewildering. Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware in January 2013 introduced a bill that would make D.C. the 51st state. This bill goes to the  committee he chairs, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

First, Carper said he would hold hearings in the fall of last year. Then a hearing was to be scheduled for this past Monday. It was then tentatively rescheduled for sometime in September. This legislation has extraordinary support. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a co-introducer of the bill. So too is the majority whip, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Three neighboring Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland and Tim Kaine of Virginia) are co-sponsors as well.

Reid has publicly said "The District deserves statehood." He told me that when it comes out of committee, "We will make it happen." That means an historic floor vote for the very first time on D.C. statehood.

The president's statement should be a catalyst for immediate action. No one should ever underestimate or minimize this president, or any other president who chooses to elevate an issue to national importance. All one has to do is remember how President Lyndon Johnson made the 1964 Civil Rights Act law by vigorously using the bully pulpit to insure its passage.

A hearing on the bill needs to actually happen in September. The bill needs to be marked up and voted on in committee and sent to the Senate floor where it can be passed. For the highest visibility and impact, this must all happen before the November elections.

A speech to D.C. about D.C. in D.C. by President Obama, pushing for D.C. citizens to join America as equal citizens, should be a presidential must. There is no reason why these actions should be delayed or postponed. We have waited far too long. The time for presidential leadership is now.

Plotkin is a political analyst and a contributor to the BBC on American politics.

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