DC Statehood: Moving forward in 2019

In early March the District of Columbia’s half-century-long struggle for statehood achieved what it never before had:  the expressed support of one chamber of Congress.

HR 1, a broad voting-rights bill that included such provisions as automatic voter registration and public campaign financing, also endorsed statehood for DC and passed the House on a party-line vote of 234-193.  The statehood provision was a non-binding expression of support and not the passage of an actual bill to grant statehood:  That bill, HR 51, had yet to move forward in Congress.  But Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, pledged to hold a hearing and advance it later in 2019.  And the inclusion of statehood in the national Democratic Party’s voting-rights priorities, as well as strong endorsements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, marked a milestone for the movement.

What a difference 26 years makes.  In 1993 a bill to grant statehood to the District made it to the floor of a Democratic-controlled House and was defeated 153-277.  While District leaders at the time touted the bill’s even getting that far, a loss of that magnitude in a supposedly friendly chamber was nothing to celebrate.

However, that was a different era, and a different District.  In 1993 DC was in dire financial straits, on the verge of insolvency.  The crack epidemic was near its peak, and the murder rate soared to historic levels – 467 people were killed in DC that year alone versus 160 in 2018. And the reputation of the District wasn’t helped by the arrest and conviction of its mayor, Marion Barry, for crack possession just three years prior.

But now, in 2019, the District is still riding a wave of economic growth and prosperity that took off just after the turn of the millennium.  In contrast to the string of budget deficits it suffered in the 1990s, the recent budget proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser would represent its 24th consecutive balanced budget.  DC is undergoing rapid growth, both in terms of its economy and population.  After many years of decline the DC population bottomed out at 572,000 around the year 2000, but today has grown to over 713,000 (although still short of its early 1950s all-time high of more than 800,000).  It has a higher per-capita average income than any state.

To be sure, DC’s growth and prosperity have come at a price.  The increase in population has been largely due to an influx of affluent newcomers, attracted to the conveniences of urban living and the new luxury condominium buildings that are popping up like mushrooms in damp weather.  This has bid up the price of housing in formerly working-class neighborhoods such as Brookland, Columbia Heights and the U Street Corridor, resulting in the displacement of longtime lower-income residents, overwhelmingly persons of color.  A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the District has the highest “intensity of gentrification” in the United States.  The changing demographics of the city tell the tale:  In 1970 blacks comprised 71.1 percent of the District’s population and whites 27.6 percent; by 2017 blacks were no longer a majority at 47.1 percent with whites making up 45.1 percent.

Yet the same forces that have made the District less affordable for many have given many members of Congress the confidence that it could afford to grant DC the democratic equality that it has long craved.  Now in better economic shape than many (if not most) states, with a larger population than Vermont or Wyoming, the District can make a strong argument that its time for statehood is now.  It made that argument on Feb. 27 when more than 400 DC residents signed up to lobby Capitol Hill in a legislative push organized by the advocacy group DC Vote.  Within days the number of House co-sponsors of HR 51 rose from 197 to 201 (still the current number as the Socialist went to press) and a more recently introduced companion bill in the Senate has attracted 31 sponsors.  DC voters underscored their desire for statehood on Election Day 2016 when 86 percent of them endorsed it in a referendum.

The newfound popularity of the DC statehood movement is evidenced by the fact that all US Senators representing Maryland and Virginia support statehood, as do all members of the House representing suburban communities close to DC – with the lone exception of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (MD, 5th District).  In the past there was resistance from suburban Maryland and Virginia over fear that the District would impose a commuter tax on workers living in those jurisdictions and working in DC, something it is now forbidden to do by Congress.  But as Senator Mark Warner of Virginia noted, an increasing number of DC residents now commute to the suburbs – and that number will certainly grow once Amazon opens its new headquarters in Crystal City.

So unlike in 1993, the odds appear good that a bill for DC statehood will pass the House of Representatives, a new first in the fight for equality for the District.  And unfortunately, that’s where it will stop.

Back in the early days of the DC statehood struggle, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy – one of the cause’s longtime supporters – used to lament that DC would face an uphill battle in the quest for democratic equality because it was “too liberal, too urban, too black and too Democratic.”  It’s not as black as it used to be, although still very liberal and if anything even more urban.  But the fourth obstacle – being Democratic – is the highest hurdle.

The increasing partisanship on Capitol Hill creates a paradox for the District:  Unlike in 1993, a strong majority of Democrats in Congress are boosters of statehood.  But as in 1993, Republicans are in lockstep against it (that year only one House Republican, Wayne T. Gilchrist of Maryland, voted for it).  For Democrats, statehood for today’s District should be a no-brainer:  it would mean an extra voting Democrat in the House and, more importantly, two Democratic senators.  (Think how that would have changed the dynamics of, say, the Brett Kavanaugh nomination).  Although one would hope that democratic equality for the District should be a matter of simple justice and not partisanship, Republicans see it as a dagger at the elephant’s heart and will not rest in finding rationalizations to oppose it.

Therefore, it seems clear that DC statehood will remain stalled until the political stars align:  a Democratic majority in the House, a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic senators, and a Democratic president willing to sign the bill into law.  It’s not that unlikely:  That combination existed in 2009, at the beginning of President Obama’s term.  But instead of reaching for the prize of statehood, DC’s elected leadership sold the movement short and pursued a bill to provide only a single vote in the House.  That move failed when pro-gun senators added an amendment that would have gutted DC’s firearms laws, causing supporters to abandon the bill.  After the election of 2010 Republicans held the advantage in the House and even limited voting rights for DC were off the table.

District leaders, especially Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, seemed to have learned their lesson.  Since the failure of the voting-rights bill, DC’s elected leadership has projected a consistent message:  statehood or bust.  The stars are not aligned in this Congress, but the 2019-2020 session could be seen as a dry run.  If Democrats can win big in the election of 2020 – ousting Trump, retaining the House and hitting that magic number of 60 in the Senate – statehood could become a reality.

It would be hard asking DC residents to wait until 2021 to achieve equality, but then they’ve been waiting ever since their congressional voting rights were revoked in 1801.  After 218 years, what’s two more?

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