6 months after Capitol assault, DC still needs statehood

Jan. 6 attack exposed how lack of representation hurts District residents

DC Vote holds a rally on June 22 on East Capitol Street in Washington in support of statehood for the District of Columbia.   (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
DC Vote holds a rally on June 22 on East Capitol Street in Washington in support of statehood for the District of Columbia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 6, 2021 at 9:00am

Six months have passed since the Capitol insurrection. In that time, members of Congress sought to create a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the attack, but they were stymied by the Senate filibuster. Despite that, a House select committee is poised to look into the insurrection, and we must take steps to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.

The first action, to fence the Capitol, may have been necessary for a brief period of time, but I’m glad to see much of the fencing has come down. A walled-off Capitol is not how things should be. It is the people’s place and should have only what is necessary for security. During my three terms in the Senate, the Capitol and adjacent office buildings were open to the American people, so anyone could come see me and my staff about their concerns. I loved seeing D.C. families sled down the Capitol lawn each winter when so many of us were away from our families.

The second action, bringing to justice those who committed crimes, has proceeded, with more than 500 people arrested or charged so far. That is crucial, not just to hold the rioters accountable but also because sensitive materials, including laptops, were stolen from Capitol offices.

A third action is to monitor online planning of violent actions. This is a different challenge from what we faced when I chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, but it’s essential to stave off further violence.

Lastly, the Jan. 6 attack reiterated the importance of statehood for Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia reached a less-recognized but crucial milestone on April 22, when the House voted for D.C. statehood.

Washington is best known as the nation’s capital, but it is mostly residential and has a long-standing and vibrant community of 700,000 people — more than Vermont or Wyoming. Residents pay federal and local taxes, register for the draft, serve on juries and have all the duties of other citizens. D.C. also has a large share of residents who serve in the military and is home to 32,000 veterans. But they have no voting representation in the House or Senate, so their license plates read “taxation without representation.” 

D.C.’s second-class status means it does not control its own national guard. So on Jan. 6, when it became clear the Capitol Police would need help, D.C.’s mayor lacked the authority to order D.C.’s National Guard into action. Instead, the request for support was delayed while awaiting approval from Pentagon officials. Once the Capitol was finally secure later that day, D.C. residents, who did not incite the riots, were subjected to a curfew. 

Congress then debated accountability for the Jan. 6 riot and subsequent impeachment, but D.C. residents — including those in the Capitol Police, Metropolitan Police Department, and D.C. National Guard — had no say because they have no representation in the Congress some of them had defended. 

The D.C. statehood bill got a hearing last month at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Michigan’s Gary Peters and on which my own Arizona senator, Kyrsten Sinema, serves. My former colleague Joe Lieberman, a strong supporter of Republicans such as John McCain and Susan Collins, made an impassioned plea to the committee to grant equal rights to D.C. residents through statehood. The last time the Senate voted on granting equal representation to D.C. was in 1978, when Barry Goldwater and I represented Arizona, and both of us supported the legislation. Eighteen other Senate Republicans joined Goldwater in voting for the bill

This was consistent with historical Republican support for local self-government and equal rights under the law. President Dwight Eisenhower argued in his 1954 State of the Union address, “In the District of Columbia, the time is long overdue for granting national suffrage to its citizens.” President Richard Nixon told Americans in 1969, “It should offend the democratic senses of this nation that the … citizens of its capital … have no voice in the Congress.”

Despite opposition from current Republican leadership, supporting full voting rights and representation for 700,000 of our fellow Americans is clearly the right thing to do. As a Democrat, I have crossed party lines to back Republicans several times because I felt that, on the merits, those were the right votes for our country at the moment. Equality for D.C. residents, on the merits, should have bipartisan support as it has received in the past.

As state legislatures pass voter suppression laws, I hope our senators realize that the right to vote and be represented is sacrosanct, and Americans should not forfeit it just because they live in our capital.

Dennis DeConcini represented Arizona in the Senate as a Democrat from 1977 to 1995. He chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1993 to 1995.