People For the American Way

Denying D.C. Statehood is a “Denial of Our History”

Federal Update

On September 19, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act to establish Washington, D.C. as the 51st state. The hearing was historic in nature, as the last hearing in the House on this issue was held more than 25 years ago, in 1993.

The more than 702,000 residents of Washington, D.C. have never had a voting representative in Congress, and to this day still are denied this fundamental right. The geographic area of Washington, D.C. is relatively small, but its population surpasses that of Vermont or Wyoming. Yet the District of Columbia pays more in federal taxes per capita than any other state and pays more in total federal taxes than 22 other states.

The hearing featured testimony from several witnesses including D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson, and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, as well as witnesses outside of local government to provide various legal and constitutional perspectives.

Witnesses and members of the committee alike made a number of compelling arguments in favor of D.C. statehood. In addition to the core American credo of “no taxation without representation,” speakers also emphasized racism, discrimination and voter disenfranchisement throughout the hearing, with several members on the committee and witnesses explaining the role that bigotry has played in the history of D.C.’s governance. Washington, D.C. has always had a significant African American population, and many lawmakers’ opposition to statehood was rooted in their desire to deny the growing Black community civic participation and representation in the District.

“Yes it is true, we are more brown and more liberal than some of you, but denying statehood would be unfair no matter who is affected,” Mayor Bowser said at the hearing. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York went even further. “To deny the statehood of the District of Columbia is to deny the impact of slavery in America,” she said. “It is a form of denial of our history.”

Under the current arrangement, Congress must not only approve of the District’s budget, but it must also sign off on all of its laws. This prevents the residents of D.C. and the local elected officials that represent them from having autonomy in all matters of governance, whether it be education, infrastructure, healthcare or criminal justice.

Washingtonians have overwhelmingly supported statehood at the polls. In 2016, a referendum on D.C. statehood won a decisive 80 percent of votes in support. And public support for this effort was on clear display at the hearing, with the halls packed wall to wall with people trying to get into the overflow room, and hundreds more watching outside on a large projector screen set up on a lawn across from the Rayburn House Office building, where the hearing was held.

Building on the momentum from the hearing, PFAW and our allies will continue organizing to advance the issue of D.C. statehood. With nearly the entire Democratic caucus already co-sponsoring H.R. 51, a vote on the House floor is expected to be held sometime next year, where it is likely to pass.

However, as with so many other important reforms, the key to ultimate success requires winning the Senate and White House in 2020.