DC might win US House vote if it tries

Greg Nash

The apparent failure of Congress’ security officials to coordinate with District of Columbia police ahead of the attack on the U.S. Capitol has spurred new cries in the District for statehood.

Before the Capitol Hill calamity, the D.C. statehood crusade had been bolstered by the upcoming Joe Biden presidential inauguration and Democrats winning a slim Senate majority. What’s more, D.C. leaders’ persistence paid off last year in House passage of a statehood bill.

President Biden supports D.C. statehood, and Democratic Senate and House leaders have both pledged to renew their efforts. 

So, for progressives, what’s not to like? In short, the odds.

Though D.C. leaders loyally argue their case, statehood is not politically possible, and they know it. There are two insurmountable hurdles.

First, both House and Senate would need to approve D.C. statehood and the president sign the initiative. The legislation would require the votes of 60 of the 100 senators, who all know that statehood would virtually guarantee a two-seat gain for Democrats.

In perspective, the last states admitted to the union, Alaska and Hawaii (in 1958 and 1959, respectively) resulted only after a decades-long political fight, led by Alaskan leaders and Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt. At the time, President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, favored statehood for then Republican-leaning Hawaii but not for then strongly-Democratic Alaska (though he signed the Alaskan statehood legislation). Ultimately, many longtime congressional opponents of Alaskan statehood from both parties relented. 

Further, D.C. statehood in the 2020s might not even get all Democratic senators’ votes. One reason: senators from the 11 most populous states (based on 2019 Census estimates) now represent over 52 percent of U.S. population, but have only 22 percent of their chamber’s votes. Some Democrats might not wish to tip the balance even further towards states with small populations, which would result with D.C. statehood.

But the second hurdle, a U.S. constitutional amendment, is even higher and completes D.C.’s barrier to statehood. While Alaska and Hawaii statehood were passed via acts of Congress and referendums in the candidate states only, D.C. statehood would require a constitutional amendment. That won’t happen.

Note that Congress adopted an amendment for D.C. statehood in 1978, when Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House, and sent the proposal to the states for confirmation: Fewer than a third of states ultimately voted to ratify, far short of the needed three-fourths. In 2021, don’t even imagine that three-fourths of states would ratify adding two Democratic senators.

Nonetheless, D.C. could make real gains if it aimed for something achievable; that is, perhaps District taxpayers can score a voting seat in the House of Representatives.

On May 23, 2007, D.C. (non-voting) Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, advocating a bipartisan Senate bill by then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent. It would have given the District a voting House seat (but no Senate seats) and otherwise the same legal authority as other states. (Note that D.C. has long been afforded three electoral votes for the presidency, the same number as states with the smallest populations.)

That bill, advanced by Democrats and a few Republicans, garnered 57 of the 60 Senate votes needed to proceed. It wasn’t all the District wanted then — or now — but it’s unlikely a Democratic House would pass up that deal if it the Senate offered it.

Remember the District has always held an ace, which is an appeal to the conscience of all members of a Congress that collects taxes from D.C.’s 700,000 residents but denies them a vote on Capitol Hill.

Ed Maixner is a retired journalist who edited the Kiplinger Agricultural Letter and who now writes for Agripulse.com. Previously, he led the Washington Bureau at Farm Progress Companies and served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Follow him on Twitter @CowPokeEd

Tags 51st state DC Admission Act Eleanor Holmes Norton House vote Joe Biden Statehood movement in the District of Columbia Washington D.C. Washington DC statehood

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