House

Political fireworks fuel DC statehood hearing

Questioning grew heated Monday at a House hearing over whether the District of Columbia should become the nation’s 51st state.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee accused their GOP colleagues of subverting the conversation away from the crux of the issue — that the District’s roughly 700,000 residents have no vote in Congress — while Republicans argued that Democrats’ bill H.R. 51 is unconstitutional and a blatant power grab due to the District’s Democratic tilt.

“Today’s hearing is all about creating two new Democratic Senate seats,” the panel’s ranking member, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), said in opening remarks. “D.C. statehood is actually plan B of the Democrat political power grab. Plan A was to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) pointed out in her opening remarks that the city “pays more federal taxes per capita than any state … and pays more federal taxes than 22 states.”

“Congress can no longer allow D.C. residents to be sidelined in the democratic process, watching as Congress votes on matters that affect the nation with no say of their own, or watching as Congress votes to overturn the laws of the duly elected D.C. Council with no say of their own,” Norton argued. “Full democracy requires much more.”

Norton, the original sponsor of H.R. 51 and a longtime advocate for D.C. statehood, is the city’s lone representation in Congress, but can’t participate in floor votes.

The bill passed the House last session of Congress with no Republican support. With 215 co-sponsors this session, the lower chamber is expected to pass the measure again.

However, in the evenly split Senate, the bill will more than likely languish unless the filibuster is nixed.

National support for D.C. statehood has increased over the past year, with the country becoming more aware of the District’s inability to control its own National Guard last summer amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd. D.C.’s National Guard is under federal, rather than local, control.

In another high-profile example, the District was also slowed in its response during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots for the same reason.

In a new poll from think tank Data for Progress, 54 percent of Americans said they approve of D.C. statehood, a record.

President Biden has signaled support for the bill, but even if the legislation made it to his desk for him to sign, legal challenges would almost certainly follow.

How the bill works

H.R. 51 would make most of the District a new state through a novel process. The capital wouldn’t cease to exist, but rather be shrunk to include the National Mall, monuments, White House and other federal buildings. The rest of the city would become the new state.

Those residing inside the new federal capital would be able to vote in the state where they previously lived.
Republicans quickly pointed out that the proposed bill would violate the 23rd Amendment, which gives D.C. electoral votes in presidential elections.

“Although H.R. 51 provides for expedited consideration of a constitutional amendment to repeal the 23rd Amendment, that cannot be effectuated by simple legislation and requires the votes of three-fourths of the states to ratify the new constitutional amendment,” Mainon Schwartz, a legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service, told the panel.

Statehood proposal is uncharted waters

In addition to the 23rd Amendment, H.R. 51 also causes the juxtaposition of several constitutional provisions, including the Constitution’s guidelines for the federal capital and the admittance of new states.

Republicans in the hearing took the stance that D.C. could not become a state through just legislation, although the admissions clause of the Constitution gives the discretion to do so and is how all of the states after the original 13 colonies have joined the country.

GOP witness Zack Smith, who is a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, described D.C.’s situation as “unique.”

“The admissions clause is constitutionally irrelevant, because none of those other 37 states owe their very existence to a separate constitutional provision; the district owes its existence to the district clause [of the Constitution],” Smith said.

Another argument that received airtime from the GOP during the hearing was that D.C. would need the consent of Maryland to become a state, since the land on which the District currently sits was originally provided by the state.

Retrocession has happened before. In 1846, Virginia took back present-day Arlington and Alexandria counties. A complaint on the constitutionality of the move was brought to the Supreme Court, but not until 1875, leading the highest court in the land to not rule on the issue.

Bowser gets grilled at hearing

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) was part of the corps of witnesses to provide testimony Monday and was extensively questioned by the panel’s Republicans.

After being needled by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) with basic questions on the history of D.C., Bowser replied: “I’m happy to go over a history lesson with you at the appropriate time.”

The tension between the mayor and GOP lawmakers during the hearing was visible, with members often cutting Bowser off before she was done giving her full answer to their questions.

Things boiled over when Bowser was fielding questions from Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), who implied that D.C.’s economy was inferior since it lacks a classic industry such as manufacturing or agriculture.

While giving details about D.C.’s industries, Bowser was cut off by Grothman, prompting an angry interjection from Norton.

“The witnesses on the other side have repeatedly kept eyewitnesses, especially the mayor of the District of Columbia, from fully answering questions,” Norton, clearly perturbed, told committee chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Comer then jumped in, accusing Democrats of using the same tactic.

Puerto Rico raised as balancing act

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) made the argument that, historically, new states have been admitted into the union in pairs or groups in an attempt to keep either party from gaining a political edge.

D.C. is strongly Democratic, and Republicans have warned that if the city becomes a state both of the senators would be Democratic.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) responded to Hice, saying that if that was the case then Puerto Rico, another statehood candidate that is more conservative than the District, should also be admitted as a state.

“That has been in the Republican platform for many decades,” Raskin said of Puerto Rico statehood.

“You want to deal … you want to bring in two states together the way Kansas and Nebraska came in or Hawaii and Alaska, why aren’t you fighting for Puerto Rican admission?” Raskin questioned.

The logistics of Puerto Rico — a territory — becoming a state are different from D.C.’s situation, but the Caribbean island did hold a referendum vote on the possibility of statehood in November.

It passed with more than 52 percent support.

Tags 51st state Carolyn Maloney DC statehood Eleanor Holmes Norton Glenn Grothman James Comer Jamie Raskin Jody Hice Joe Biden Muriel Bowser Paul Gosar Statehood movement in Puerto Rico
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