The Constitution’s “Admissions Clause” is pretty vague on what’s necessary to become a state. Article IV, Section 3, Clause I says “new States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.”
The House Oversight Committee held a hearing on potential statehood for Washington, D.C., this week. But Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., had some new ideas about requirements for the District of Columbia to qualify as the 51st state.
“D.C. would be the only state without an airport. Without a car dealership. Without a capital city. Without a landfill,” said Hice.
For the record, the District of Columbia does have car dealerships. And a landfill. The airport, Reagan National Airport, is located just across the Potomac River in Virginia. That plot of land was part of the District of Columbia until the 1840s.
“So now we’re going to have a new test for statehood?” asked Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.. “Do you have a landfill?”
If a landfill is a condition, perhaps Love Canal in New York should apply for statehood. Car dealerships? CarMax alone could be in the running.
The House will vote soon to make Washington, D.C., a state. The bill may get a vote in the Senate – and then the measure will likely die. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., promised to put bills that pass the House on the floor of the Senate – even if they don’t go anywhere. This is an effort to gin up interest to perhaps kill or alter the legislative filibuster. Sixty votes are necessary to break a filibuster. And unless the Senate nixes the filibuster, the D.C. statehood bill is likely headed to the legislative landfill.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, argued that Democrats turned to “Plan B” since Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., refused to eliminate the Senate filibuster. Comer argued that the D.C. statehood gambit was “a key part of the radical, leftist agenda to reshape America, along with the Green New Deal, defunding the police and packing the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Washington, D.C., has no voting representation in Congress. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C., is just that: a non-voting delegate to the House. Norton has power in committee, but no vote on floor of the House. D.C. has no voting U.S. senators. The Constitution is clear: Only states or commonwealths get representatives and senators.
This is why Washington, D.C., emblazoned “Taxation Without Representation” on its license plates in the 1990s. D.C. residents pay more taxes than 22 other states. It pays more taxes per capita than all 50 states.
“It is about equality and democracy,” said House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
But Republicans, like Comer, see it as a power play to run up Democratic numbers in the House and Senate. Comer suggested that adding two, presumably Democratic senators from an incipient “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” (the proposed name of the new “state,” named after President George Washington and abolitionist Frederick Douglass) was a “firewall” to prevent the GOP from undoing a progressive agenda.
It’s unknown who a new state or commonwealth might send to the House or Senate. But Republicans were confident their side wouldn’t stand a chance in the left-leaning city.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., asked Washington, D.C., Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser about the “ideological makeup of D.C.” when it came to the ballot box.
“What political affiliation do you think the two new senators would be?” asked Foxx.
“It will be up to the people of the District of Columbia,” replied Bowser.
Connolly took issue with the line of questioning from his North Carolina colleague.
“I’m grateful for our last questioner on the Republican side, my friend, Ms. Foxx, for actually letting the cat out of the bag,” said Connolly. “This is about race and partisanship and affiliation.”
So maybe it’s not about landfills and car dealerships.
But Connolly is on to something when he speaks about “affiliation.” That’s because, historically, the U.S. has often sought political parity when admitting new states.
The U.S. admitted New Mexico and Arizona into the union within five weeks of one another in 1912. There was a political offset to welcome both states. That would drum up bipartisan support for the effort.
The same phenomenon arose with the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Political balance was there, too. Although there’s an interesting historic footnote with Alaska and Hawaii: Alaska was supposed to be the Democratic state and Hawaii the Republican state. But those roles flipped over time. Alaska is now more Republican than it was in the 1950s. Hawaii is now more Democratic than it was back then. That said, both states have elected members of the “other” party to key offices in recent decades. Alaska had a Democratic senator as recently as early 2015. Hawaii had a Republican House member for a short period a decade ago.
This is why, without political balance, Norton conceded the city was trying to become a state “the hard way.”
But that’s why Connolly says discussions about statehood for the District of Columbia should be based on merit – not political affiliations.
“Assumptions are dangerous. Behavior changes. We can’t make decisions on that basis,” said Connolly.
Democrats would likely reap the political windfall now – especially as they try to advance key parts of their agenda. Moreover, fighting for statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico helps Democrats with their base. Democrats are struggling right now to approve gun control measures, climate change legislation, comprehensive immigration reform and a bill to enhance voting access.
It’s rare that one party accomplishes all of its goals in Congress. Statehood is just one of those. So even if they’re not successful, Democrats can show their voters they waged the fight.
But Bowser contends, D.C. statehood is about fairness.
“The disenfranchisement of Washingtonians is one of the remaining, glaring civil rights issue of our time,” testified Bowser.
She argues statehood for D.C. should have been fixed a long time ago.
“Why did the motivation to right the wrong disappear? As time passed, and the District became majority African American, the drive to correct the wrong was replaced by racist efforts to subvert a growing and thriving majority Black city,” said Bowser.
But, as Norton might say, that’s hard. There’s no advocacy in Montana to make D.C. a state. Few in Missouri care. Others in Utah don’t even know this is a political quest. And if you lack a vote in Congress, it’s hard to make statehood happen.
It’s up to Democrats to grant D.C. statehood this time. The chances are better than they’ve been in years. A Democratic House. A Democratic Senate. And a Democratic president.
The bill will likely pass the House in the coming months. But the Senate, as is often the case, is the problem.
And if Democrats don’t get D.C. statehood and other key bills passed, they will begin to view the United States Senate as the local legislative landfill.