The District of Columbia statehood movement is heading to Capitol Hill this summer, now backed for the first time by Marylander and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The chamber’s Oversight and Reform Committee has scheduled a July 24 hearing on legislation that would make the District the 51st state.
The measure is sponsored by Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting representative in the House, who announced the hearing Thursday at an event at the D.C. War Memorial on the National Mall. She was joined by the District’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
The location was chosen to emphasize that District residents have fought and died in wars overseas, without having a vote in Congress on whether the country goes to war.
“This memorial has come to represent all our residents who gave their lives, because none of them have had the same rights,” Norton said. “Today we gather at this D.C. War Memorial to say ‘enough’ in more ways than one. We have had enough of second-class citizenship.”
Bowser pointed out that two states with fewer residents than the District’s population of more than 700,000 have full voting rights in Congress. Census estimates for 2018 showed Wyoming with fewer than 578,000 residents while Vermont had 626,000.
“Our continued lack of voting representation in Congress is a disgrace to the nearly 30,000 veterans who call our city home and it is a stain on our nation’s democracy,” Bowser said.
Norton has introduced a D.C. statehood bill every term since coming to the House in 1991. In her first term, her legislation had no co-sponsors. In the next Congress, it picked up 81 co-sponsors — but ultimately flopped, 153-277, when it came to the floor in 1993.
The latest version, dubbed HR 51 in a nod to the 51st state, has gathered more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors, more than ever before. This week, she, gained a key ally in House leadership in Hoyer.
“I have been hesitant in past years to call for statehood for the district because I believed that we could achieve voting rights for its residents without having to take the politically difficult steps statehood would entail,” Hoyer explained in a Thursday op-ed in The Washington Post.
“I now believe the only path to ensuring its representation is through statehood. Legislation granting representation in the House could be revoked in the future; statehood would bring D.C. residents a permanent voice in our elected institutions,” he said.
Hoyer was the lone Democrat in congressional leadership holding out on support for Norton’s legislation, but will now sign on as a co-sponsor. He joins other supportive party leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
Under Norton’s measure, D.C.’s eight wards would become a full state, with representation by one representative in the House with full voting powers and two senators. The bill’s language specifies that the Capitol complex and National Mall would remain under federal control.
Norton is not deterred by the slim chances her bill faces in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to consider it. Republicans have long opposed giving statehood status to the District because it consistently votes heavily for Democrats, who would gain additional power in Congress.
“We’re not at all discouraged. We think that nothing happens in the Senate until it happens first in the House,” Norton said.
Congress has the power to grant statehood under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution. There is debate, however, whether legislation alone would be enough to grant statehood to the District because the Article I separately talks about the seat of federal government being on land ceded by the states.