It’s been a year and a half since the last time a House of Representatives committee held a hearing about D.C. statehood, far less time than the decades that passed between the lower chamber’s previous airing of the arguments for and against making the District the 51st state.
A lot has changed since September 2019: the full House of Representatives passed HR 51, the legislation that would make D.C. a state, for the first time in history last June; the United States now has a president who expressly supports statehood for the District and Democratic control of both chambers of Congress; and a series of recent events have laid bare the consequences of disenfranchisement, including the first federal COVID relief bill screwing D.C. out of more than $750 million, the deployment of federal troops on city streets without local approval during June’s protests for racial justice, D.C.’s police department securing the Capitol after the Capitol Police’s failure to do so during the Jan. 6 riot, and the following construction of a fence around District neighborhoods that inconveniences residents and briefly kept local laws in limbo, all without approval of D.C. officials.
Much remains exactly the same, too. Approximately 712,000 residents of D.C. have limited representation in the House of Representatives and none in the Senate, despite paying more per capita in taxes than any state, fighting in the country’s wars, and comprising a larger population than two states, Wyoming and Vermont, that each have two senators. The bill would turn the District’s eight wards into a state, with sites like the Capitol and National Mall remaining under federal control. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has introduced some version of the bill since she got to Congress in 1991.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, seated, prepares to testify before a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing, Monday, March 22, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.Caroline Brehma / AP Photo
The partisan split on statehood hasn’t moved, either. Of the 215 cosponsors of HR 51 in the House of Representatives and 41 for the matching bill in the Senate, none are Republicans. The GOP continues to argue that D.C. statehood requires a constitutional amendment (WAMU’s statehood-focused podcast 51st digs into the legality of it) and represents, as Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) put it, a “radical leftist agenda to reshape America.” Often implicitly and sometimes explicitly, GOP politicians contend that the heavily Democratic District getting statehood would mean two more senators joining the Democratic caucus, sidestepping that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens lack full representation in Congress.
Each time statehood comes before Congress, Republicans often cite the intent of the Founding Fathers in their opposition, along with a potpourri of other claims. Remember when Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was concerned that D.C. statehood would impact his staffers’ ability to park their cars near the Capitol? Or when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said that Wyoming was “more deserving” than D.C. of statehood, despite its smaller population, because it was a “well-rounded working-class state.” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) echoed a version of this argument on Monday, asking D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser whether the District had mining, manufacturing, and agriculture, because “that’s how nation’s build wealth.”
“We do not have any mines, Congressman,” Bowser said, pointing out that D.C.’s diverse economy was not reliant on the federal government. She said in her opening statement that she was expecting a series of bad-faith arguments from statehood opponents.
The new argument du jour from Republicans came courtesy of Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who said that D.C. ought not be a state because it didn’t have car dealerships, landfills, or airports. (The GOP witness, Zack Smith of the Heritage Foundation, said basically the same thing while putting it differently, contending that D.C. lacks the “amenities and resources found in many other states.”)
While the Constitution does not establish any prerequisites for states, Hice’s argument was especially befuddling because D.C. does have a number of car dealerships. When multiple speakers pointed that out, Hice responded that his claims were not arbitrary but instead “based in reality … I apologize for being wrong [about the existence of car dealerships in the District]. I have no idea where it is.”
But somehow, that didn’t put the car dealership question to rest. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) piggybacked off Hice to note that, while D.C. may have a car dealership, it’s a Tesla dealership. Again, the Constitution makes no mention of an electric car exception, but Norman too was wrong, because that isn’t D.C.’s only car dealership.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said Republicans were “simply trying to gin up whatever argument they can think of,” saying that, while they accused Democrats of trying to pass statehood for partisan purposes, Republicans “are the ones trying to create a political and ideological test.”
Many Democrats, meanwhile, painted statehood as an issue of fairness and of racial equality. D.C. would be the only majority-minority state, as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) mentioned. “D.C. statehood is a racial justice issue,” she said, noting that the measure could help diversify the halls of Congress.
While some of the specifics differed, the four-hour hearing mirrored ones and appeared unlikely to change any lawmaker’s mind on the issue. While the measure is likely to pass the House, it faces a larger challenge in the Senate. Advocates say it won’t make it to a vote unless the Senate abolishes the filibuster.