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House set for historic vote on DC statehood

The House is poised to pass legislation Friday that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state, the first time such a bill has ever been approved.

The vote will be historic, as legislation to make the District a state has not even been brought to the floor since 1993, when it was soundly defeated.

Yet even if the legislation is approved on Friday, the passage will underscore the challenges the movement for D.C. statehood still faces.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a Senate vote | Pelosi, Mnuchin see progress, but no breakthrough | Trump, House lawyers return to court in fight over financial records Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief LGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress MORE (R-Ky.) has ruled out bringing the bill to the floor, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE opposes it. If D.C. were a state, it would almost certainly add two Democratic senators and one Democratic lawmaker to the House given the city’s Democratic-leaning citizens.

Nonetheless, Friday’s vote will be a big milestone in a decades-long battle.

‘10 miles square’

Residents of the District, then majority Black, couldn’t even vote in presidential elections until 1961 with the ratifying of the 23rd Amendment.

In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act, which gave D.C. a district council and a mayor.

“[I was] born here without a vote, but I swear I will not die here without a vote,” D.C. Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserFederal court rules DC church can resume services outdoors despite city restrictions DC-area health officials urge COVID-19 testing for anyone at White House event DC reports highest single-day rise in coronavirus cases since June MORE (D) said at a press conference Thursday.

Bowser described opposition to D.C. statehood as “cries that we’re too liberal, or we’re too Black, or there are too many Democrats.” 

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“We are grateful for the vote tomorrow, but we also know that our work will not be done,” Bowser said, adding that she’s prepared to wait until next year for a Senate vote “in the first 100 days of the next administration.”

The push for D.C. to become a state began in the 1980s, when Washington was more than 50 percent Black. The city is now about 47 percent Black but is still a majority-minority city. 

“Historically it has a lot to do with the makeup of D.C. being at that time being a predominantly Black city,” said April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter (BLM) D.C.

Goggans said that though statehood could give them a form of electoral equity, BLM DC wants to see Bowser address issues of police brutality within the District, such as the use of eye irritants by D.C. police on protesters this week. 

“She said nothing because the narrative didn’t fit what she needed to be said about statehood this week,” Goggans said. 

‘Tiny population’

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) argued in a Wednesday statement that the legislation is unconstitutional because it would violate the 23rd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the District of Columbia three votes in the Electoral College. 

The OMB said that if the legislation were to pass Congress, Trump’s advisers would recommend that he veto the measure. 

The bill proposed by Democrats does not eliminate the federal district, but shrinks it to a much smaller area that includes many of the buildings where the federal government conducts official business. Parts of Arlington and Alexandria Counties in Northern Virginia were originally part of the District of Columbia until 1846, when Congress returned the land to the state of Virginia. 

The OMB argues that the 23rd Amendment “would give the tiny population of individuals living within those borders the same voting power in the Electoral College as the smallest state in the country.”

The population of Washington, D.C., estimated by the U.S. Census to stand at 705,749 in 2019, is greater than the states of Wyoming and Vermont and close to the populations of Alaska, Delaware, Montana and North Dakota.

As written, the Democrats’ bill would provide expedited procedures to repeal the 23rd Amendment and give people still living in the federal district the ability to vote absentee in their state of origin. 

“The problem is what happens to this kind of orphan amendment — the 23rd Amendment — when the new state gets its electoral votes and yet there is a Capital area that remains, which, on one reading the 23rd Amendment, would still get three electoral votes,” said Peter Raven-Hansen, a law professor at George Washington University.

Raven-Hansen said that although some Republican lawmakers may hold legitimate constitutional concerns, the mechanisms for creating states have historically been political. In 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii became states, the two were seen as canceling each other out.

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Taxation Without Representation

Supporters of D.C. statehood readily point out the D.C. pays the most federal taxes per capita in the country, even though it’s not a state and has no voting power in Congress.

Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonOcasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Hopes for DC, Puerto Rico statehood rise Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' MORE (D) represents D.C. in the House, but Norton can only vote in committee and on procedural votes, not floor votes. D.C. has no representation in the Senate.

The District also pays more total federal taxes than 22 states, according to Bowser’s office.

“The original thinking was that the federal government needed a sovereign space,” presidential historian Jon Meacham told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in explaining why the country would allow so many people who pay taxes to not have voting representation in Congress.

“It was about independence really, that’s the irony of this. I think we’ve outrun that logic ... and I doubt this passes, but the statistics ... as well as the intellectual argument from [Norton] is, to me, pretty compelling.”

In practice, the District operates as a city, county and state. Bowser and the D.C. Council do the majority of the day-to-day governing of the District.

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But there are exceptions.

The federal government controls and pays for the District’s courts and its prison system. Additionally, the mayor and the Council don’t have full autonomy over the city’s budget, and any law the D.C. Council passes must be approved by Congress.  

One common myth surrounding D.C. statehood is that the federal government subsidizes the majority of D.C.’s budget. In reality, around 30 percent of the District’s annual budget comes from federal funding; five states in the country receive more.

New spotlight

The fight for D.C. statehood has been thrown into the national spotlight in recent weeks due to nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May.

Some of the protests devolved into looting and property damage, leading multiple states to mobilize their national guards. D.C. has a National Guard too, but since it’s not a state, the president controls the service members and also has the power to federalize the city’s police force. 

Trump and his administration have taken an aggressive stance to the protests, criticizing Bowser personally, mobilizing the D.C. National Guard and turning federal police on demonstrators near the White House in Lafayette Square.

Bowser bashed Trump for sending federal troops to the District.

“Our soldiers should not be treated this way. They should not be asked to move on American citizens,” Bowser told protesters on June 6.