Why it’s past time for Congress to make D.C. a state with full voting rights
Did you know the District of Columbia, a territory that is denied full representation in Congress and is almost completely controlled by the federal government, is a vestige of the post Civil War era when southern Democrats were desperate to keep freed blacks from voting? I didn’t either until I moved here last year and began seeing signs calling for D.C. statehood in walks around my new Capitol Hill neighborhood. Until then, I hadn’t realized that almost all of the life or death decisions affecting District residents are made by Congress, depriving us of our rights as citizens and making many people’s lives harder than they need to be. Here are some astonishing examples, courtesy of the local ACLU chapter who recently submitted a written statement to Congress urging it to pass a law giving the District statehood:
- When Congress passed a $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill in March 2020, members of Congress opted to treat the District of Columbia as a territory, shortchanging D.C. residents a full $755 million at a time when D.C. had more COVID-19 cases than 19 other states. The money was eventually handed over a year later, after many residents had already died or been hospitalized with COVID.
- Congress regularly attaches a rider known as the Dornan Amendment to its annual appropriations bill, blocking the District from using its own local tax dollars to provide abortion coverage for individuals enrolled in Medicaid — something states are free to do. This makes it exceedingly difficult for poor women who often cannot pay for an abortion themselves to obtain one.
- On January 6, 2021, when a violent mob entered the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to overturn a legitimate Presidential election, the District did not have the authority to deploy its own National Guard troops (like any other state would). Instead, it had to rely on the Department of Defense, and as we all know, the Trump administration delayed approving national guard intervention until long after the attack was underway.
- Because the federal government controls the District’s courts and criminal justice system, people convicted of offenses are placed in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which can house them as far away as California and Arizona, making it difficult to maintain close family ties. In addition, the U.S. Parole Commission (which decides DC parole cases) “has been known to hold people longer than intended and to deny parole due to non-completion of rehabilitative programs — even if the facility in which the person is being held does not offer such programs,” according to the ACLU.
As if that’s not enough, the District recently completed a long overdue overhaul of its criminal code to make it more consistent with 21st century legal practices (as many other states have done). But Republicans in Congress were successful in blocking that legislation, along with another D.C. bill that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.
Indeed, as the Washington Post recently reported, “D.C. is bracing for a continued barrage of House bills or investigations as Republicans flex their authority over the District, the latest chapter in a decades-long feud between the deep-blue city and red-state Congress members who have often sought to thwart liberal policies in the nation’s capital.”
And that’s really what the battle over statehood comes down to: politics. If D.C. ever became a state, its 700,000 residents (almost twice that of Montana) would more than likely be represented by two Senators and at least one Representative in the House. And given that the District routinely votes blue, that would give the Democrats even greater control in the Senate and help them regain a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans, of course, will do everything in their power to prevent that. I must note here that Democrats in Congress have not always been supportive of the District’s statehood efforts either. As I alluded to before, it was southern Democrats who led the move to disenfranchise freed blacks in 1871 by replacing D.C.’s territorial government with three presidentially appointed commissioners, effectively making it a district under federal control rather than a state. And it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed into law Home Rule for D.C., allowing its residents to vote for their own city council and govern themselves in some local affairs. Even so, the District’s efforts to become an independent state stand a much better chance if the Senate, House and Presidency are in Democratic hands.
I’ll leave the final word to D.C.’s Attorney General Brian Schwalb:
“We pay more federal taxes per capita than any other jurisdiction in the country and more total federal taxes than 23 states. We have fought and died in our country’s wars. And, we are a community of parents, teachers, business owners, police officers, nurses, and many others who choose to live in the nation’s capital. Members of Congress who are elected by residents of other states, who do not themselves live in D.C., and who have not participated in our local civic discourse, should not substitute their judgment for the democratically expressed views of District residents…” Amen.
This blog is also posted on my website.