A House vote Friday on a bill to admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state was the first time a D.C. statehood bill passed either chamber of Congress. It’s also expected to be the bill’s last stop, at least until next year.
The measure, passed 232-180, has little chance of making it to the floor in the GOP-controlled Senate. Friday’s vote does mark a milestone for many who have spent years fighting for D.C. statehood, and if Democrats keep their focus, it might one day become reality if the party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“My service in the Congress has been dedicated to achieving equality for the people I represent, which only statehood can provide,” said Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was first elected in 1990 as the District’s nonvoting delegate and has served in that capacity ever since.
The quest for statehood is likely to end Friday in this Congress, but people like Joshua Burch, the founder of advocacy group Neighbors United for DC Statehood, will be celebrating the vote anyway.
“It feels gratifying and inspiring given the work a lot of people have put in over the years,” he said.
Burch, who was born and raised in Washington, said he and advocates from other groups are not under any illusions that the bill will become law this year. But the vote suggests it is closer to becoming reality than ever before.
“I do think it shows that D.C. statehood is possible, and not in the too far-off future,” he said.
The statehood vote was scheduled by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer after weeks of friction between President Donald Trump and D.C. leaders, who fought over the proper response and appropriate use of force to people protesting racism and the police killing of George Floyd.
Advocates also point out that Washington’s population is greater than that of Wyoming and Vermont, and its residents pay federal taxes, unlike other U.S. territories.
One of the most visible points of tension came during a news conference in which Trump declared himself the “law and order” president while federal law enforcement cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square with flash-bang grenades and pepper-spray projectiles.
The White House decision was roundly condemned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and others who didn’t have much say over the response.
“The whims of a federal government can encroach upon our even limited autonomy, and it can do so in ways that are threats to all of the American states, and all of the American people,” Bowser said at a news conference Thursday. “The way we say 'no' is to make D.C. a state.”
Bowser was flanked by Norton, Hoyer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Paul Strauss, the District's shadow senator.
Statehood also would have provided the District with about double the aid it received in the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed in March. That’s because it would no longer be treated as a territory and instead as a state.
Costs of statehood
The new state’s cost would be relatively narrow and could one day save the government a lot of money, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate said.
“The discretionary savings could total hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but when that would happen is uncertain and would depend both on actions by the new state to fund those activities and on reductions in appropriated spending by the Congress,” the report said.
The bill would also establish an 18-member commission to advise lawmakers on the orderly statehood transition. That body has a price tag totaling about $2 million.
One of the only recurring costs would be those of senators, the CBO estimates. Based on the current annual salary for senators, adding two U.S. senators would increase direct spending by $37 million over the 2021-25 period, assuming appropriation of the estimated amounts.
Since a delegate like Norton receives the same amount as a voting representative, the CBO does not estimate there would be additional costs.
'Government theme park'
Adding Washington, D.C., as the 51st state would grant the District two senators and one House representative with full voting rights, and it would provide the new state with the same privileges and authority granted to other states.
It would include all territory comprising the current District, minus the area primarily around the National Mall comprising the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court, which would be under federal control and be named the Capital.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton called statehood for D.C.’s more than 700,000 residents “a naked power grab,” suggesting that Democrats are pushing for statehood to get two new senators who would likely be Democrats.
Standing in front of a floor chart map of the “Capital” area highlighted, Cotton criticized the plan, saying the area with “90 sides” looks like “a gerrymandered government theme park.”
In a Statement of Administration Policy on Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget said President Donald Trump would be advised to veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
The administration says the bill violates the 23rd Amendment, granting D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections. (The legislation calls for a swift vote to repeal the 23rd Amendment.)
“In addition, H.R. 51 would create an opportunity for a new State of Washington, D.C. to dominate the capital and render those who meet there beholden to its interests, rather than the interests of the Nation as a whole,” the OMB statement said.
Hoyer, who recognized the legislation’s chances after the House vote, said “partial citizenship is not an option” and vowed to fight on to make D.C. a state.
“We’re committed to getting it to be law, and as long as it takes us. We’re going to take John Lewis’s advice,” Hoyer said invoking his fellow Democrat from Georgia and civil rights leader. “We’re going to keep our eye on the prize, which is statehood, for the District of Columbia.”