Memory of Capitol riot hangs over DC statehood hearing

Jan. 6 kept coming up as advocates laid out the case for statehood

D.C. statehood activists walk by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
D.C. statehood activists walk by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 22, 2021 at 5:56pm

Statehood advocates capitalized on momentum in their quest to make D.C. the 51st state as GOP lawmakers sought to knock them back in a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing Monday.

The meeting, which at times got chippy, focused on old issues of constitutionality but new disagreements over the violent events of Jan. 6, which shook Capitol Hill and left many wondering what could have been different if the District were a state.

“If you want to argue originalism, what was of concern to the Founding Fathers in creating a federal district was to protect the government from riots, like Shays’ Rebellion,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, referring to the insurrection in the 1780s.

Things have changed a lot since then. When a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol earlier this year, “the District came to your rescue, yet we were impeded in trying to send the D.C. National Guard because we are not a state,” he said.

Mendelson and several others at the hearing wore masks emblazoned with the number “51” as they repeatedly tried to reframe the statehood question as both a security matter and a civil rights issue.

“Our mayor was denied the right to protect the representatives in our Congress from the worst insurrection that they have experienced since the war of 1812,” said Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

What the issue really boils down to, he said, is voting rights for the roughly 700,000 residents of D.C., nearly half of them Black. “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” Henderson said. “Unfortunately, that is the history of this country.”

Republican lawmakers alternated between quoting the Constitution and pointing to political and logistical sticking points.

Statehood is nothing more than a “power grab” by Democrats seeking to move forward a “radical leftist agenda,” ranking member James Comer said, summing up Republicans’ opposition to creating new seats in Congress that could be reliably blue.

Rep. Jody B. Hice wondered whether a place without landfills could actually be a state.

“D.C. wants the benefits of being a state without operating like one,” said the Georgia Republican, arguing it lacks key facilities like a prison, an airport or even car dealerships.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly scoffed at the matter of car dealerships and moved the conversation back to civil rights. This is about “democratic unfinished business,” the Virginia Democrat said.

One witness suggested that people in D.C. should be satisfied with the power they already have.

“The Framers of our Constitution wanted a separate federal district to preserve the safety and security of the federal government,” said Heritage Foundation legal fellow Zack Smith. “The Framers also wanted to avoid one state having undue influence over the federal government. There’s no question that D.C. residents already impact the national debate.”

As lawmakers drive to work, they can just look out the window. “For the members here today, how many of you saw D.C. statehood yard signs, or bumper stickers, or banners on your way to this hearing today?” Smith asked.

“I certainly did,” he said.

From the fringe to the center

What was once a seemingly fringe quest for statehood has moved front and center, advocates say.

“The issue has gone from being a local passion in Washington to a real national policy agenda,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

While District residents have driven around with “Taxation Without Representation” on their license plates for two decades, the rest of the country is now hearing from groups who want to show how much it matters.

Nationalizing the issue has energized some who have been in the fight for years — and having both chambers and the White House controlled by Democrats doesn’t hurt either.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton saw the House pass her statehood bill last year, 232-180, with all but one Democrat in favor and no GOP support.

The bill could have gotten a House vote before April 1 without a hearing because it passed last Congress, but Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said in a press call Monday that holding the hearing was important because it would build a legislative record in case of court challenges. It would also “educate the American public and the undecided Democratic senators on why statehood is the right thing to do and is constitutional,” she said.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper introduced a companion to the House bill in the Senate, which has 41 Democratic co-sponsors. As Delaware’s governor, he had to call on his state’s National Guard many times. But during the Capitol storming, hours elapsed before Washington got the OK to send its guardsmen to help repel the crowd.

“The mayor of D.C. cannot deploy the D.C. National Guard in cases of emergency, like the insurrection we saw just two months ago in our nation’s capital that resulted in the death of police officers and dozens of injuries,” Carper said in a Monday press call before the hearing. “So, this is not just a question of democracy or taxes, it's also a question of public safety.”

The bill would shrink the federal district to a 2-square-mile area and turn the rest into the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. For residents, it would mean full congressional representation, with one House member and two senators.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer plans to bring the legislation to the House floor for a vote in the “near future,” he said in Monday’s press call. The bill’s fate is not clear in the 50-50 Senate.

The legislative filibuster in the Senate would require 60 votes to overcome, meaning 10 Republicans would be required to support it. Meanwhile, some moderate Democrats have yet to take a firm position on the issue.

Joshua Burch, founder of grassroots group Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, said he’s waited a long time.

“We’ve done everything that we needed to do to put the bill in a place where it can pass. And now it’s up to members of Congress, and their constituents, but also leadership itself to push us over the edge,” he said.