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D.C. Statehood Push Gains Steam, but Budget Autonomy Languishes

A tweet from Sen. Cory Booker may be the most recent evidence that the crusade to make the District of Columbia the 51st state is gaining steam on Capitol Hill.

The New Jersey Democrat announced his support for statehood on Feb. 21, joining a growing chorus of congressional supporters including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del.

Carper introduced the “New Columbia Admission Act” in January 2013, a bill that would formally forge the eight wards of the District into a state, represented by two senators and one House member. He has also promised a hearing on the issue. Companion legislation in the House, sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., picked up its 65th co-sponsor earlier this month.

Still, even the staunchest statehood supporters acknowledge the effort faces long odds.

Eager as he may be to assume the role of governor of “New Columbia,” Mayor Vincent Gray recently suggested that becoming the 51st state might not be a realistic goal for the city, at least in the short term.

Norton has been pushing similar bills since she was first sworn into Congress in 1991. Statehood had its first and only vote in 1993 and was defeated in the House, 153-277.

Critics have suggested that perhaps D.C. is not viable as a state because its economy is so easily influenced by regional market forces. Others say its politics are warped, with a strong majority of Democratic voters making the nation’s capital a one-party town. Corruption and scandals have also taken their toll.

Gray told CQ Roll Call that proponents might be better off fighting for the components of statehood.

District advocates have concentrated their strategy on incremental gains — budget autonomy, legislative autonomy, congressional voting rights and representation — toward the ultimate goal of an independent “New Columbia.”

Some say the city achieved the first part of that platform on Jan. 1, when a local law amending the budget process laid out in the Home Rule Act went into effect.

Gray and his administration, however, have been skeptical of the constitutional muster of the law.

House Republicans rejected the local budget autonomy law, and the Government Accountability Office recently issued an opinion bolstering their argument that the measure has no legal effect. Norton has promised to defend the local law from attacks on the Hill.

Gray agrees with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who told CQ Roll Call earlier this month that the spending deal Congress recently agreed to represents a good part of what the District wants. Language in the fiscal 2014 appropriation exempts D.C. from the threat of a federal government shutdown in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

“The District of Columbia is not a state, and they’re never going to have full budget autonomy, but they now have one year, prospectively, to plan to spend their own money, which allows them to make that budget,” Issa said.

Though he is not backing the statehood bill, Issa does support efforts to give D.C. the ability to set its own fiscal calendar. A July 1 to June 30 fiscal year would allow the District ample time to allocate money for the opening of schools in the fall without the uncertainty caused by following the Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 federal fiscal year.

“When we considered and offered to change the District’s fiscal year, they declined to be willing to commit to change their fiscal year,” Issa said. “If they’re not changing their fiscal year, then most of their argument for budget autonomy  . . . . falls away.”

In the Senate, Alaska Democrat Mark Begich recently declared himself a “supporter of budget autonomy,” and indicated he is eager to work on legislation. The senator’s office had no progress to report on Monday.

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