Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood

Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood
© Michelle Kinsey Bruns/flickr

One of the most invisible topics in American political life is the issue of statehood for the District of Columbia. You probably are reading this and wondering, “What is he talking about?”

Unless you are a resident of the nation’s capital, your lack of knowledge is understandable. The last time the subject had a scintilla of coverage was nearly a quarter of a century ago.


On a Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving in November 1993, the U.S. House of Representatives debated whether the residents of D.C. should be granted statehood. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMost voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' Booker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' MORE was in the first year of his presidency. As a candidate the previous year, he had testified in favor of D.C. statehood before the U.S. House’s District Committee.


The other Democratic presidential candidates of 1992 had come out in favor as well; they were U.S. Sens. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinWisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE of Iowa, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. There was actually a vote on the floor of the U.S. House that post-Thanksgiving weekend. 

That vote was the one and only time that D.C. statehood saw the light of day.

The Clinton administration’s commitment was less than enthusiastic. I distinctly remember watching the administration’s chief congressional lobbyist and vote counter leave the Capitol before the actual vote took place.

This was a “show vote.” A gesture to D.C. that the administration gave a damn about the district.

One reason for the vote was that Jesse Jackson had taken up the cause. Jackson had become a resident of the district and got himself elected as D.C.’s shadow senator.

The job of the shadow senator had a long and proud tradition. Its primary purpose was to be the official lobbyist for D.C.

The other person responsible for representing D.C. was House delegate Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonDC statehood will give representation to city residents and rectify a deep injustice DC flies flags with 51 stars ahead of statehood parade Democrats grill BLM chief over plans to move officials out of DC MORE. Norton had been elected in 1990. Her predecessor was Walter Fauntroy.

The delegate had limited powers. The position allowed the individual to have a vote in House committees, but not an actual vote on the floor of the House.

The debate on D.C. statehood was held on Saturday afternoon. The Speaker of the House was Tom Foley (D-Wash.); the majority leader was Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). They both gave inspiring and memorable speeches that pleaded with the members to give the citizens of the nation’s capital the same rights as every other American citizen.

Republican members were adamantly opposed. They saw D.C. statehood as a power grab by the Democrats that would result in having one more Democratic member in the U.S. House and, even worse, the eventual election of two additional Democratic senators.

The principle that more than 600,000 American citizens had only the right to vote for president of the United States but lacked voting representation in the U.S. Congress did not bother them one bit.

One GOP member who expressed his disdain for D.C. with extremely harsh words was a then-obscure backbencher named Tom Delay, of Texas. He constantly referred to the citizens of D.C. as “those people.” This, to my mind, was a not-too-veiled reference to the majority African-American population in the district.

When the vote was finally taken, it was not even close to the required 218 votes: 151 Democrats voted aye; one independent, Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul MORE of Vermont, voted aye.

The sole Republican aye-vote was Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland. Truly a profile in courage: The former high school civics teacher explained his vote as a question of “dignity.”

My most vivid memory of that afternoon was the most senior member of the House, John DingellJohn DingellPolling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress Pelosi should take a page from Tip O'Neill's playbook MORE (D-Mich.), standing near the House floor, grabbing fellow Democrats and then putting his thumb down, signaling that they should vote no. He and Jack Brooks of Texas were the only Democratic committee chairmen who voted no.

The bill went nowhere in the U.S. Senate. Committee Chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio) and his subcommittee chairman made sure of that; they held an “informational hearing,” which was not a hearing on the bill itself.

Nothing of a serious nature has happened since 1993. Delegate Norton has been all talk, no action. She refuses to personally lobby and go see members to advocate for the issue.

In 2014, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Senators call for more automakers to join emissions deal with California MORE (D-Del.) introduced a D.C. statehood bill. The Democrats were in the majority at that time. Carper failed to get even one Democratic senator to come to a hearing that he chaired. That bill obviously went nowhere.

President Obama paid minimal lip service and never put his office behind the issue.

There will be a time when Democrats control both houses and there is a Democratic president. This was the case in 1993 and 2009. Both times the issue of D.C. statehood was considered not that important to enact.

How long will the citizens of the nation’s capital be denied the full rights of American citizenship? If history is any guide, the situation will remain unchanged.

Yet, nearly 700,000 Americans who live in the district should not stand for it and should do everything possible to remedy this patently undemocratic, un-American condition.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner. He previously worked as the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.