By Wilf Butler
London, United Kingdom
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was going through provisions in 2014, President Barack Obama told Americans in support of the act to “Call your senators!”
Jamal Holtz, a Washington D.C. native and passionate advocate for the ACA, hoped to do just that. But Holtz, a “born and bred, native Washingtonian,” had no senator to call.
It was then, Holtz tells me, that he “realized the injustice of not having a vote or voice in the Congress. It was not only a stain on our democracy and a stain on American families, but it was detrimental to D.C. residents.”
He decided to act, and is now a leading volunteer for the 51 for 51 grassroots organization campaigning to make Washington D.C. a state.
In April of this year, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed the Washington D.C. Admission Act. The bill, if approved by the Senate, would create a 51st state, called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth—a tribute to Frederick Douglass, a 19th-century abolitionist and resident of the District. Statehood would give the District full representation (two senators and a voting representative in the House). The privilege of two senators is particularly important to acknowledge in the statehood debate; adding two extra seats to the current 100 senators would dramatically shift the chamber’s balance of Democrats and Republicans, as the District is solidly Democratic territory.
But Senate approval is a huge “if.” It will require 60 votes to survive the filibuster, meaning the move needs the support of at least ten Republicans. The chances of that are slim.
D.C.’s unique status as the home of the federal government means Congress has jurisdiction over the city. It also ensures that its population of 700,000 (a population greater than Wyoming and Vermont) has no representation in Congress. Since the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, D.C. has been able to vote in presidential elections, but it does not have voting representation. This means that D.C.’s delegate in the House of Representatives, currently Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), cannot vote on legislation.
Once a fringe topic, the question of D.C. statehood has come to the forefront of national politics. President Joe Biden supports the move, along with almost the entirety of the Democratic Party. A 2016 referendum of the city’s residents found that 85.7 percent wanted statehood.
Dedicating the proposed state to a slavery abolitionist, in an era where the fight for racial justice in the U.S. has caught global attention, is incredibly pertinent. Because the district’s population is 47%African-American, Democrats have characterized the fight for statehood as a civil rights issue. Denying the city representation amounts to voter suppression, they argue.
As a young Black man, Holtz agrees. “D.C. statehood is the most pressing civil rights issue of our lifetime. It’s a racial justice issue,” he tells me. “We preach democracy, but [we don’t] practice democracy.”
“This is about Black Power. This is about Black political power. And this is about Black voting rights,” he says.
Is giving D.C. statehood really a vital civil rights issue? Opponents think not. Like with most issues in Congress, Democrats and Republicans are fiercely divided. When the D.C. The Admission Act was debated in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last Tuesday, party lines were drawn deep into the sand.
The Committee met to discuss the Act’s future in the Senate. Senators used classic lines of defense and attack around the issue and notable speakers and testifiers taking part.
In his opening remarks, the Committee Chair, Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), expressed his support for the bill. The residents of D.C., he said, “have been denied an equal voice in the formation of the very laws and decisions that govern them. And this is unconscionable.”
Congresswoman Holmes Norton was among those testifying to the Committee. She too described the struggle for D.C. statehood as a civil rights one. Congress, she argued, has a “moral obligation” to give the District representation in Congress. The District’s Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, made a similar case, saying Congress had made a “civil rights violation of 700,000 D.C. residents.”
Supporters of the bill also made references to the American Revolutionary War slogan “No taxation without representation.” Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) told the Committee, “D.C. residents “pay more on a per capita basis than any other 50 states, yet they have no vote in the US.”
The Act’s opponents attempted to focus their criticisms of statehood more around its legal and political impracticalities rather than wider civil rights or democratic issues. For example, Roger Pilton, Vice President of the CATO Institute of Legal Affairs (a right-wing think tank co-founded by billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch), argued that Congress would lose the unique jurisdiction it has over the resources in the D.C. area — thus, if D.C. were to gain statehood, Congress would become dependent on an external state for needs including electricity and water.
If the District were to achieve statehood, a new, smaller federal district called the “Capital” would be created” Under the 23rd Amendment, the “Capital” would be required to have three electoral college votes.
Derek Miller, a law professor at the University of Iowa, was quick to highlight this. “A tiny group of prospective voters, potentially including the president and his family who happen to reside here, [would] have three electoral votes,” Mr. Miller said. The permanent population of this new federal district, he added, would be, according to the most recent survey, just 58.
Democrats and statehood activists argue that the Republican Party’s opposition lies, in reality, in a desire to prevent a big, urban, diverse area from having political influence.
With Republican opposition strongly entrenched, the Washington D.C. Admission Act will almost certainly die in the Senate. The movement for D.C. Statehood, Marc Morial of the National Urban League said, was a “long, long battle whose time has come. It’s time to enact this bill.”
“We can no longer wait. We can’t wait to correct this stain on our democracy,” Holtz says. “The United States is the only democracy in the world that doesn’t allow the people in its nation’s capital not to have voting rights.”
For now, it seems, the U.S. will have to wait before adding another star to its flag.