It’s appropriate that at a time when injustices inflicted on Black Americans by various governments are front and center in the news, a particularly ancient injustice, the denial of congressional representation for the District of Columbia, is facing a legislative test in Congress (though it’s happening nine years after “Chocolate City” ceased to be a majority-Black jurisdiction).
Yes, the U.S. House is going to vote on a D.C. statehood measure for the first time since 1993, as the Washington Post reported:
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has chosen June 26 to hold the first floor vote in a generation on D.C. statehood, hoping to harness a national reckoning on race and capitalize on widespread outrage over the federal response to street protests in the nation’s capital.
Officials expect legislation making the District the 51st state to pass the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority of Democrats, which would be a watershed moment for pro-statehood activists and the first time in U.S. history that either chamber of Congress has advanced a statehood bill.
Hoyer’s support is particularly significant because for many years Marylanders (including Hoyer) and Virginians opposed D.C. statehood out of fear that the new jurisdiction, if given full sovereignty, would impose a commuter tax on suburbanites working in Washington. That’s a major reason the closest thing to a successful effort to give D.C. residents full representation was a constitutional amendment passed by Congress in 1978 that denied statehood but granted the city two senators and a voting House member. This District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment died in 1985 when only 16 of the necessary 38 state legislatures had ratified it by the expiration date specified in the measures.
Now both senators from both neighboring states are onboard, in part because of changing commuting patterns in the D.C. area. But the major bar now is partisanship. The 1978 measure drew significant support from congressional Republicans wanting to make a gesture toward what was considered a basic civil-rights cause (one famous co-sponsor was the ex-segregationist Strom Thurmond). But not a single Republican-controlled state legislative chamber ratified it, reflecting the unavoidable fact that it would have given Democrats two more senators and another House member. That remains the big obstacle to statehood today, per the Post:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) strongly opposes D.C. statehood and has said the legislation would not get a vote in the Senate as long as he’s in charge. President Trump says Republicans would be “very very stupid” to allow the District to become a state, since its overwhelmingly Democratic voter base would be granted the power to elect two new senators and a voting member of the House.
Thanks to a combination of partisanship, racism, and the symbolic unpopularity of the nation’s capital in a country with strong anti-federal-government sentiments, the D.C. statehood cause has never been nationally popular: Gallup found Americans opposing it by a 64/29 margin last year.
The case for D.C. statehood is also complicated by parallel demands on behalf of Puerto Rico, which would also almost certainly elect Democrats.
Historically, because new states and their representatives do tend to upset partisan and ideological balances (especially in the Senate), states have tended to be admitted in matching sets. Much of 19th-century antebellum politics revolved around Democratic and Whig efforts to keep free and slave states in balance, until the South (with support from the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision) asserted the unconditional “right” to carry their “property” everywhere, which triggered the Civil War. The last two states to be recognized, Alaska and Hawaii, came in as a set, based on a now-puzzling assumption that the former would lean Democratic and the latter Republican (both states did initially have one senator from each party). There was even a briefly promising deal attempted in 2009 that would have given D.C. a voting House member while giving heavily Republican Utah, the state closest to the population threshold for an additional seat, an extra representative as well (it actually passed the Senate, but with an amendment overriding D.C.’s gun-control laws, which doomed the bill in the House).
But the steady consolidation of Democratic support for D.C. statehood means that a big Democratic election year could finally produce a breakthrough:
Like any other Senate bill, a statehood bill would have to survive a filibuster, so you’d either need 60 Democrats or a significant number of Republicans. Or you’d need filibuster reform, which many Democrats favor but that Joe Biden, unfortunately, opposes. The likely House vote for D.C. statehood is reviving the issue at a time when its demise yet again may be perceived as a racial injustice, thanks to the president’s conspicuous deployment of federal force right outside the White House against those protesting George Floyd’s killing. No one expects Trump to change his mind and support full representation for a city that gave him a grand total of 4 percent of its votes in 2016. But if he’s sent back to Mar-a-Lago in November, anything’s possible.