On Thursday, a House committee heard testimony on legislation that would make most of Washington DC into a state for the first time since 1993. Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform pushed back hard on the case for statehood, raising objections ranging from the constitution to control over parking.
Many present acknowledged the role of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in pursuing the issue. As the District of Columbia’s non-voting representative, Norton has been working on the issue for her 28 years in office.
Rep. Norton chaired the hearing. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Mayor Muriel Bowser were among those on the panel to testify before the House Committee.
“Yes, it is true that we are more brown and more liberal than some of you, but denying statehood would be unfair no matter who was affected,” said Bowser in her testimony. “It would be unfair if we were conservatives from a rural district built around agriculture or an industrial city in the heartland.”
“This is America, and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law.”
Opponents to the legislation, including Rep Hice (R-GA) and panel member Roger Pilon, Kenneth Simon Chair in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, argued that District statehood was a constitutional, rather than legislative issue. Much of the debate centered on the issue of the legality of either process.
However, many members of the committee also asked questions that debated whether the District met the conditions for statehood that Pilon in his testimony attributed to James Madison. These include commitment to democracy, public support for statehood and the resources to support the state independent from those of the federal government.
The recent WMATA scandals involving Councilmember Jack Evans (D) and Metro Board member Corbett Price were raised by Ralph Warren Norman Jr. (R-SC), who specifically referenced the two when he asked Bowser about transparency in government. Bowser sidestepped the issue, saying she was here to talk about representation in Congress.
However, Representative Jamin Raskin (D-MD) called the question ‘the worst distraction’ from the issue. “The argument seems to be that if one person in a jurisdiction gets into trouble, then you disenfranchise the entire community,” he said. “That cuts across everything we believe in about democracy.”
Raskin said similar incidents could be found among politicians from every state represented on the committee. “It is beneath the dignity of this chamber to say that we should be disenfranchising tax paying, draftable, serving citizens of the United States because of the sins of one person.”
Parking was used as part of an argument against DC Statehood. Pointing to the borders of the Federal Enclave proposed in the package compiled by the District Council, Representative Thomas Maddie (R-KT) said many staff would need to park in the new state as the borders were currently designated. He said it would be problematic if staff had to appeal to a state for parking.
However, Representative Stacey Plaskett (D), the non-voting member from the United States Virgin Islands, said it was flabbergasting that people were ‘more concerned about parking than the rights of citizens to make their own self-determination’.
Rep Grothman chastised the DC Council for the decision to license sports gambling which he said “almost by definition takes advantage of the financially illiterate, to further grow your government.” He pointed to high rates of crime in the District, saying that his research led him to believe if the District became a state it would have the highest rates of violent crime.
Bowser turned Grothman’s insinuations back on him. “I do want to point out that part of the reason why we are here to demand full statehood and sovereignty for the people of our District is because I control a part of the criminal justice system, and you on the federal level, control the rest,” she said.
Bowser said that the Federal Government has control over prosecutors, courts and supervision agencies for adult and youth while the District controls the agencies that enforce the laws.
“So, the way that you and all my residents can ask me about how we are driving down crime is to make sure that we have complete control over all the agencies that effect crime in Washington DC –and statehood is how we get there,” she said.
‘Call this What it is’
In heated remarks, Gerald Edward Connolly (D-VA) said that the Republican Representatives were not interested in the defense of voting rights. “When they say it’s not about race and partisanship, you can be sure it’s about race and partisanship,” he said.
“Let’s call this what it is,” he said. “This is not about the constitution.”
Connolly said states had been legislatively created from others. Drawing on an example from his home state, he pointed out that West Virginia was carved out of Virginia in 1862 after it was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War and ratified by Congress without a Constitutional amendment.
Connolly argued the District had not been created by the Constitution, noting that the Constitution was ratified in 1788, two years before the District was created out of land ceded from Maryland and Virginia.
“I know [James] Madison would be the first to line up and give you the right to vote,” he said to Mayor Bowser, “not as a privilege because you served for your country, but because it is your right.”
Pilon asked Rep. Connolly to withdraw the charge that the refusal to make DC a state was about race. Connolly responded with one word: “Never,“ he said.
In an email circulated prior to the hearing, Representative Norton said that the bill has 220 supporters in the House. It is not clear if or when the bill will be scheduled for a hearing.
Asked by ranking Republican Jim Jordan (R-OH), Dr. Pilon opined that the Senate would not vote on the bill but refused to speculate on whether the President would sign it if it theoretically passed through Congress. Pilon did agree with Jordan when the latter suggested that even successful legislation would likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.
“Mayor Bowser, is it true that you hung flags with 51 stars all over your city?” asked Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) near the end of the hearing.
When Bowser confirmed this was true, Tlaib replied, “I would love one. I would love to hang one outside of my office.”
“As one of my mentors said, ‘you’ve got to put it out there, Rashida, and it will happen’.”