On Impeachment, DC Is on the Outside Looking In

On December 17, as the House of Representatives was moving toward a vote on impeaching President Trump, supporters of impeachment held rallies around the country, in many cases to encourage – or pressure – their representatives to vote yes.

There also was a pro-impeachment rally in DC on December 18, the day of the vote. Taking place as it was at the Capitol, it garnered some coverage by national news media as a convenient backdrop to the impeachment story.

But the DC rally had no one to impress or pressure, given that members of Congress from around the country had no motivation to take notice of it.  Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s elected representative to Congress, had no vote.

Now that impeachment has moved to the Senate (as of press time the trial was in progress) DC voters are even further on the outside looking in – unlike in the House, where Norton is the non-voting delegate, the District has no voice at all in the Senate.

For four decades the District has been lobbying to become the 51st state of the Union.  After many disappointments and setbacks the struggle is poised to reach a new milestone when the House, following its historic hearing on statehood last December, is expected to vote to add the District as the 51st star to the flag by this summer, according to the office of Congresswoman Norton.  The House bill already has enough sponsors to pass, and nearly all Democrats are expected to support legislation that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declared a high priority.

And that’s where it will come to a dead end, for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no more likely to move a bill that would result in two additional Democratic senators than to allow Democrats to force President Trump to testify under oath in the impeachment trial.

But if nothing else, the trial of President Trump shows why statehood is the only solution to the District’s disenfranchisement, not the half-measures that have been proposed in the past.  The proposed bill from a decade ago, which would have given DC a single vote in the House but no Senate representation, sold democracy short.  That would have given DC no voice in the impeachment trial, nor in the confirmation votes of the rogues’ gallery of Trump appointees.

DC statehood would be more than a symbolic gesture to democracy – it could, and would, substantially alter politics in the United States.  If DC and national Democratic officials had pushed forward to statehood in 2009-2010 instead of settling for the failed bill for a vote only in the House, the new state would have sent two senators to Capitol Hill who would have affected Trump’s ability to put his nominees in place.  Betsy DeVos, instead of being confirmed 51-50 as Education Secretary after a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence, would have been rejected 52-50 with two “no” votes by DC’s senators.  Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh would have required a tie-breaker from Pence after what would have been a 50-50 vote instead of the 50-48 vote he got.  A Democratic Senate caucus strengthened by DC’s two extra votes might have emboldened Democrats to challenge other nominees that they instead rolled over for.

One would hope that basic democratic rights for the more than 700,000 citizens of the nation’s capital would be a nonpartisan issue. One’s hopes would be disappointed.  Republicans, who control the Senate, are unanimous in their opposition to granting any greater rights to the progressive, overwhelmingly Democratic, majority-minority District than the limited home rule they now have, where Congress can look over the local government’s shoulder and veto its legislation when politically expedient.  And, of course, they want to keep the doors to the House and Senate floors barred to the city’s representatives.

So DC statehood should take unprecedented strides in 2020 – just not across the finish line.  Someday the political stars might be aligned again as they were at the beginning of the Obama administration, with a supportive President and strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.  That will be the time for the broad national progressive movement, and not just speaker Pelosi, to make achieving DC statehood a priority – both out of simple justice and practical politics.

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