State Watch

DC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill

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Washington, D.C., officials are raising the alarm over the lack of funding for the nation’s capital in the Senate’s recent stimulus package as the number of coronavirus cases in the city climbs.

The District has a larger population than Wyoming and Vermont but received fewer funds than all 50 states in the stimulus bill. It was included with the territories of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands, which collectively received $3.3 billion in funding. 

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said on Thursday the city’s residents will each receive $700, compared to residents in states, who are on track to receive $2,000 per capita. Each of the 50 states received $1.25 billion in aid.

“It’s unconscionable to give D.C. the least amount of funding of any state, especially given the unique challenges we take on as the seat of the federal government,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said this week.

The legislation has renewed advocates’ calls for statehood.

“This is the latest example of why we must grant D.C. statehood,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement on Thursday. “This failure to treat D.C. as a state must be fixed retroactively in the next bill to respond to the coronavirus.”

D.C. Ward 3 City Council member Mary Cheh (D) said that the legislation will “inevitably” spark calls for statehood, but that she’d rather just get more funding for the coronavirus for now.

“I would have rather had the fair treatment and just another, you know, talking point for statehood,” Cheh said. 

Washington, D.C., already faced an uphill battle in drafting the stimulus because it started in the Senate, where the District has no representation. 

“We were unable at the last minute when it appeared in the bill to turn it around,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who does not get a vote in Congress, said in an interview with The Hill. 

Holmes Norton was unable to get an opportunity to speak on the House floor before the vote.

Washington, D.C.’s residents pay more in federal taxes per capita than most residents of other states. Residents of the five territories do not have to pay a federal income tax. Additionally, D.C. leaders argue that it is governed more like the 50 states than the five territories. 

“When it comes to funding, the District does not have to fight to get the same per capita funding,” said Holmes Norton. “That is what is different about this bill.” 

Holmes Norton said that since it is divided up on a per capita basis, Puerto Rico will get most of the $3 billion.

She did say she was optimistic more funding would be allocated to D.C. in the next piece of legislation. Lawmakers have discussed additional rounds of stimulus, and state governors — notably New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — have suggested more money will be needed.

The District reported 36 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total of positive cases to 271. Neighboring Virginia has 462 cases, while Maryland had 581 as of Thursday. 

District leaders fear a rush of cases will hit the city.

“Everything that we’re being told says the surge is coming,” Cheh said. “We may be a boundary line away from Virginia and Maryland, but we’re all integrated into our region.” 

Bowser has taken a number of precautions, including the closing of all nonessential businesses this week.

Like states and cities across the country, D.C.’s economy will likely take a hit from the pandemic. In addition to housing the seat of the federal government, the nation’s capital is a popular tourist spot and home to a variety of small businesses. 

Statehood advocates argue that if Washington, D.C., were a state, these problems could at least be lessened with additional funding. Proponents also argue that the District is entitled to this funding because it is fully incorporated into the U.S. 

“The key difference between the Districts and the territories is that they are not fully incorporated into the United States,” David Lublin, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, told The Hill. 

The move has been seen by Democrats as a partisan move against D.C., which votes overwhelmingly Democratic, by Senate Republicans. 

“This District is a Democratic jurisdiction, which has very little power in Congress, and as politics has become more nakedly partisan, the Republicans wanted to do as little as they could for the District of Columbia,” Lublin said. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) notably suggested on Wednesday that the move to group D.C. in with the territories could have been politically motivated. 

“It was curious that in this bill they decided to treat the District of Columbia in a very discriminatory way. It really makes no sense unless you have some other motivation,” Pelosi said. 

Washingtonians have pushed for statehood for decades. The movement got its first vote in Congress in February when the House Oversight Committee advanced legislation in a 21-16 party-line vote. 

Democrats are largely supportive of statehood for the District. Republicans are largely skeptical, saying the seat of the federal government would be subject to the influence of a new state, which would likely be majority Democratic. 

Cheh said she was doubtful D.C. would achieve statehood without dramatic changes in the Senate. 

“The only thing that will allow this to happen will be a change in the makeup of the Senate,” Cheh said. “They have made it part of their Republican platform, no statehood. They’re down the line on this.” 


Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton Nancy Pelosi New York Puerto Rico Statehood movement in the District of Columbia Steny Hoyer

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