DC Statehood Hearing:  Civil Rights Clashes with GOP Partisanship

Socialism made a somewhat unexpected cameo at the September 19 House of Representatives hearing on statehood for DC.

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairing the hearing in the absence of Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had referred to the notion of making the District the 51st state an example of the Democratic party’s embrace of “full-bore socialism.”  She dismissed that notion as so much Republican partisan ranting, saying the GOP members were afraid that statehood “could dilute their power.”

But the connection to socialism – which, in some concepts of the term, is predicated on an expansion of democracy into all spheres of society – could not be so easily dismissed.  For one thing, two of the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee panel participating in the hearing were self-described socialists and members of Democratic Socialists of America:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) .  Also on the panel sat their close colleague and fellow member of the “Squad” of progressive first-term women of color:  Ayanna Pressley (Mass.).

Ocasio-Cortez noted that the land of her ancestors, Puerto Rico, also has suffered as a disenfranchised U.S. territory.  “I have family that even in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria have died without the right to vote, and I wish that upon no citizen of the United States of America,” she said.

“One of the grievances included in the Declaration of Independence was imposing taxes on us without our consent,” Tlaib said.  “More than 200 years later the tyranny of taxation without representation remains in the District of Columbia.”  She also asked Bowser for one of the 51-star flags that were flying around DC before the hearing.

While being a socialist isn’t required to support statehood for the District, the cause does demand the support and involvement of all true socialists.  For the United States cannot be called a democratic nation when its government exercises colonial domination over 702,000 American citizens, without voting representation in Congress or control over their own laws, outside its front door.

DC residents showed their pent-up aspiration for full rights as Americans by showing up and being counted.  Hundreds of them lined up outside the Rayburn Building hearing room, and only a fraction of them were able to get inside.  Others packed two overflow rooms to watch on monitors, and about 100 gathered at a park across the street where the hearing was played on a giant-screen TV.

The House hearing was a contrast to the most recent Congressional hearing on DC statehood.  In 2014 hundreds of residents showed up for a Senate hearing attended by only two senators – Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) who chaired, and one Republican who appeared long enough to poo-poo the notion that District residents deserved any rights at all. The 2019 hearing, however, drew a substantial number of committee members from both sides.  That the House leadership had, for the first time, made DC statehood a legislative priority accounted for some of the increased interest.

Witnesses called to represent the District argued their case both on the grounds of human and civil rights as well as fiscal and political probity.  “Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in her testimony.  “Will Congress rise above temporal partisan considerations?”

“Not only do we run our government well; we do it better than other states,” said DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, taking up the probity argument.  He was seconded by Jeffrey DeWitt, DC’s chief financial officer, who cited the District’s AAA bond rating, the highest score, as well as its having passed balanced budgets for 24 consecutive years and fully funded pensions for its employees.  This was despite DC’s being shouldered with the financial responsibilities of both a city and a state, and with 30 percent of its property exempt from taxes due to being occupied by the federal government, embassies and nonprofits.

The fiscal argument was a means to get ahead of Republican objections that the District couldn’t pay its own way as a state – an argument DC had a harder time making in 1993 when the last House hearing on statehood was held.  Then, the District was drowning in a sea of red ink and suffering from a wave of violent crime, and flight and disinvestment were escalating.  The bill failed in the House that year with many Democrats voting against it.  But in 2019 the population and tax base are growing, DC officials pointed out.  And while Republicans on the panel jumped on the fact that 23 percent of DC’s budget is federal funding (some claimed half, without proof), Mendelson countered that this was less than many states received – which included such nationwide programs as transportation and Medicaid – and that only about 1 percent of federal subsidy was “unique to DC.”

Republicans on the panel also tried to paint DC as a cesspool of corruption, much as they did in 1993 when the memory of former (and soon-to-be-again) Mayor Marion Barry’s arrest and conviction for crack possession was fresh in their minds.  This time their target was Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, under investigation for using his Council seat and his position on the Metro board to line his pockets.  Evans, understandably, was one of the few councilmembers not to show up at the hearing, leading to howls from Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee’s ranking Republican who called for Evans to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee.  When he argued that the ethical lapses of Evans and other DC officials – some of the instances decades old – should preclude statehood, Norton retorted that “the voting rights of American citizens and their representatives in Congress never have and never will be contingent on state and local officials never engaging in misdeeds.  Certainly, officials in Ohio, if I may say so, have been the subject of multiple political scandals for many years . . .Nobody has seriously questioned Ohio’s fitness to be a state.”

While Republicans complained about the witness roster being stacked in favor of statehood supporters, they did succeed in getting Roger Pilon of the libertarian Cato Institute to the table.  Pilon delivered the standard opposition talking points in legalistic terms, arguing that statehood would require a constitutional amendment, not simply a majority vote by both houses and the signature of the president.  He also cited the 23rd amendment, enacted in 1961 to give DC the right to vote for president, as an obstacle.  With the new state of “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” being created from the populated parts of DC, the constitutionally-required federal district would be shrunk to the Mall and surrounding federal buildings.  But, Pilon argued, the federal district would retain the amendment’s three electoral votes which would be controlled by the President and his family members living in the White House.  DC officials brushed aside this as a technicality that could easily be addressed when the District achieved statehood.

As the hearing proceeded, Democrats on the panel argued for statehood on the grounds of morality and justice, while Republicans threw arguments from their partisan talking points to the wall to see what would stick.  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from Maryland, a belated convert to the statehood cause, made an appearance to channel the new state’s namesake, Frederick Douglass.  “Power concedes nothing without a demand!” he thundered.  DC’s lack of democracy is “one of the greatest blots on our democracy, and statehood is the only way to remove that blot,” he added.

Another Democrat representing the DC suburbs, Gerald Connolly of Virginia, gave one of the most fiery defenses of statehood.  “I fear that the party of Lincoln . . . is increasingly sounding like the party of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis,” he said.  “When they say it’s not about race and partisan ship, you can be sure it’s about race and partisanship.”  Pilon shot back that opposition to statehood had nothing to do with race and asked Connolly to withdraw his remarks.  “Never!” Connolly shouted back.  He could have added that he was hardly the first to argue that the District’s largely black population (it was majority black until 2011 but today is still majority-minority) was a reason that Congress had refused to grant it full political rights; back in the 1970s Sen. Ted Kennedy, a supporter of statehood, lamented that many of his colleagues regarded the District as “too liberal, too urban, too black and too Democratic.”

Yet another suburban member, Jamie Raskin of Maryland – himself a constitutional scholar – argued that granting statehood via simple legislation was entirely consistent with the U.S. Constitution and would require no amendment.  “There has never been a state admitted by constitutional amendment,” he said – all 37 states since the original 13 were created through majority votes of both houses of Congress and the signature of the president.  Furthermore, redrawing the boundaries of the federal district had a precedent, he noted – in 1847 the territory that is today’s Arlington County and the city of Alexandria was transferred from the District back to Virginia.

As Republican members’ more substantive arguments against statehood were met with compelling responses from the other side, they began to dredge up objections that could have been considered farcical if not presented with such earnestness.  Thomas Massie of Kentucky pointed to a map showing the boundary between the new state and the shrunken federal enclave and contemplated the horror of Hill staffers being required to park in the Douglass Commonwealth, which would start across the street from the Capitol.  Massie also harrumphed that the border that ran down Pennsylvania Avenue veered south to incorporate the Trump Hotel into the state; DC officials pointed out that such commercial entities belonged in the state and not sheltered from taxation in a federal enclave.

And while no members, surprisingly, objected that the national flag would have to altered with an added star, Norton had the 51-star flag hoisted in the chamber anyway.  “You can’t even tell the difference,” she quipped.

Perhaps the most affecting testimony was delivered by Kerwin Miller, who described himself as a “third-generation DC resident and a third-generation military veteran.”  A 1975 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he noted that DC residents have served in the military since the American Revolution and 243 of them were casualties in the Vietnam War – “more than 10 U.S. states whose military veterans have the right of congressional representation.”  His testimony was reminiscent of the stories of African American veterans of both world wars who risked their lives for a country that still regarded them as barely second-class citizens when they got home.

Norton noted that the statehood bill had 220 sponsors – all Democrats – more than enough to pass the House.  But she left unspoken what would happen after that, because everybody in the room knew.  The bill would go to the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would quickly consign it to the circular file.  It’s that too-black, too-Democratic problem again.

Nevertheless, DC statehood, like other great issues of the day, isn’t going away. Passage in the House will mark a new milestone for the movement.  Failure in the Senate will mean that D.C. residents will have to ally with advocates of human rights around the country and redouble their efforts to change the composition of that body.  If that happens, and the movement within DC remains active and vital, statehood could become a reality in the near future – perhaps as early as 2021.

Watch the entire DC statehood hearing here.  

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