Politics

Three Big Hurdles for D.C. as Advocates Lobby for Statehood

Any form of Congress’ voting power would still have a few problems to overcome

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks during a press conference to commemorate the renaming of the historic U.S. Post Office located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE in honor of Dr. Dorothy I. Height. Norton has been a longtime advocate of D.C. statehood. (Douglas Graham/Roll Call file photo)

Washington advocates used the leadup to Monday’s D.C. Emancipation Day celebrations to push once again for the District of Columbia to become a state.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has been a leader in the D.C. statehood effort for decades — she’s known for asking to be referred around the Capitol as representative, despite her non-voting status. Norton spoke about D.C. statehood in Congress again Thursday night ahead of Emancipation Day.

Norton is not alone:  86 percent of D.C. voters said they wanted the District of Columbia to become a state in polls taken during the 2016 election.

Republicans have long opposed giving D.C. statehood status, as the move would put more Democrats in Congress. But even with a predicted blue shift in the House during the 2018 midterm elections, D.C. statehood remains a challenge.

Getting any form of Congressional voting representation in the District has long been an uphill battle. Here are a few ways D.C. has tried — and failed —to get representation in the past:

Constitutional amendment

The only way for D.C. to become the 51st state is through a Constitutional Amendment, a hard task even with a progressive majority.

Congress can propose an amendment to the Constitution with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. The proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution only if it’s ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has been trying to drum up support for D.C. statehood since she came to office in 2015. Bowser is focusing on building support in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois and Washington state, AFRO reported.

Norton and other statehood advocates introduce a statehood bill every Congress, co-signed by top Democratic leaders. But finding Republican co-sponsors who agree with the current version of the bill remains a struggle.

Historic precedent

Washington has gotten close to a seat in the House before.

In 2007, Norton introduced a bill that would have temporarily added two seats to the House of Representatives — one for the District of Columbia, and one for Utah — and returned the House size to 435 in the following redistricting with one House seat reserved for Washington. The bill passed the House, but failed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Norton tried again in 2009 with support from Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. The legislation passed the House but died after the Senate passed an amendment from Sen. John Ensign that tacked on major changes to the District’s gun laws.

The amendment repealed gun registration, the city’s semiautomatic weapons ban and did not let Washington “unduly burden” residents’ ability to possess firearms.

The Senate passed the amended bill, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer put it on hold indefinitely after it became clear conservatives weren’t willing to introduce the amendment as a separate bill or pass the legislation without Ensign’s change.

Retrocession

There’s one option for D.C. residents to get representation that wouldn’t involve changing the current balance in Congress: returning the land in D.C. to Maryland.

D.C. already went through this process once. The District once encompassed 31 square miles of Virginia, including Alexandria, until 1846 when the territory was given back to the state. 

Retrocession would return the territory Maryland ceded to the government in 1790, and current Washington residents would get representation through Maryland’s Senators and Representatives.

Neither D.C. nor Maryland residents like this solution. Only 28 percent of Marylanders support annexing D.C. while 44 percent oppose the measure, according to a 2016 study.  Only 19 percent of Washington residents supported retrocession, an earlier study found.

Both Norton and Maryland representatives opposed retrocession when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, proposed it last year, the Washington Post wrote. Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called Chaffetz suggestion a “frivolous proposal.”

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