When voters elected Barack Obama in 2008, District of Columbia residents were thrilled to see a senator who backed a bill to give them voting rights in Congress head to the White House.
Midway through his second term, however, many ardent supporters of the D.C.’s longtime quest for greater autonomy are less optimistic about the prospects of Obama aiding their cause. The District still doesn’t have budget autonomy or legislative autonomy, meaning local laws are still vulnerable to interference from members of Congress.
“His actions over the last six years leave a lot to be desired,” Josh Burch, a Brookland resident who heads the group Neighbors United for DC Statehood, said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call. Burch and other activists were pleased to hear the president declare his full-fledged support for D.C. statehood during a town hall meeting in Northwest Washington, but there is still a gap between the sentiment and concrete steps toward statehood. “I’m in D.C., so I’m for it,” Obama said Monday, to laughter and applause, when asked for his opinion on statehood.
Previously, Obama had gone the traditional presidential route, following in the footsteps of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, who all expressed support for self-government and the principles of home rule. This time — in fewer than 100 words — he articulated his position on why the District should be the 51st state.
“Folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else,” Obama said. “They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented like everybody else. And it’s not as if Washington, D.C., is not big enough compared to other states.”
His statement sounded “on message” to Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, and the city’s most prominent democracy advocates. Perry said in an interview that Obama’s statement allowed her group to be able to elevate the issue to national attention.
DC Vote is using Obama’s statement — trumpeted in international headlines — as an opportunity to push for a hearing on a long shot piece of legislation that even passionate supporters admit has little hope of passing Congress.
Burch, who has dedicated his spare time to a grass-roots lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, said he’s hopeful Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper , D-Del., who introduced the “New Columbia Admission Act,” in January 2013, will hold the full committee hearing he promised one year ago. Committee aides confirmed to CQ Roll Call that Carper still plans to do so before the end of 2014.
After that, maybe the measure will get a floor vote in the Democratic Senate, Burch said. He predicts the House is never going to take up the measure in the current political climate.
“The politics of it end up being difficult to get it through Congress,” Obama acknowledged on Monday, “but I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., sponsor of a companion statehood bill in the House, told CQ Roll Call that Carper has been working closely with her on scheduling the hearing. The legislation, which has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and 67 in the House, would make the territory of the District of Columbia a state, excluding a portion that would remain the nation’s capital.
“I think the president was clear about the state of Congress,” said Norton, who has been crusading for statehood since she was elected in 1990. She blames low productivity and Republicans for blocking statehood during Obama’s tenure, but said the obstacles are “not what’s important about the president’s full-throated, explicit endorsement.”
Norton said her unhappiest moment during Obama’s presidency was when a rider blocking the District from using its local funds to provide abortion services re-emerged, after Democrats worked to remove the measure from D.C. appropriations. Burch and Perry also expressed disappointment with the way the White House handled the amendment.
“We got that out and then it came right back in,” Norton said.
Statehood supporters give Obama credit for including budget autonomy and legislative autonomy in the White House’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal, and for issuing veto threats on anti-home rule GOP proposals. One is an amendment sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., aimed at blocking D.C. from enforcing a recently enacted law that decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Another is a Second Amendment-related rider sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., that could make the District one of the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the nation. Both face long odds in the Senate.
“President Obama actually has put his money where his mouth is,” Perry said, referring to White House budget proposals. Overall, she does not feel disappointed with the administration.
Burch wants Obama to use the bully pulpit to take an even more forceful stance in support of D.C. autonomy. With a continuing resolution likely on the horizon this fall, Burch would like to hear the president say the District will never “be used as a bargaining chip” during his administration.
“He should take the District completely off the bargaining table, say he will not negotiate anymore,” he said.
Activists in the District have been waiting a long time for a State of the Union shoutout from Obama, who has yet to give D.C. autonomy lip service during an address. Burch hopes 2015 will be D.C.’s year.
D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss told CQ Roll Call he was pleased, although not surprised, to hear Obama reaffirm his support for statehood, and said he wishes “we had heard from him earlier.”
“If he wishes to put some deeds behind those wonderful words, there is a lot more he can do from the bully pulpit and by executive order to give D.C. more equal treatment,” Strauss stated. “I look forward to more advocacy from the president and the White House on this issue.”