On April 22, 2021, for the second consecutive year, the US House of Representatives voted 216-208 to make Washington, DC, the nation's 51st state. Though the symbolically titled H.R. 51 bill is identical to the one passed on June 26, 2020, the legislation was never put to the vote in the then Republican-controlled Senate. However, this time around, the bill — which has the support of both President Joe Biden and Democratic Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer — will get a hearing in the upper house of Congress.
Why is Washington, DC, a district?
The US Constitution stipulates that the seat of the U.S. government should be a “District" (not exceeding 10 square miles) over which Congress would “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever.” The measure was placed to ensure that no single state could yield unfair power for playing host to the national government.
To maintain neutrality, the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 stripped residents of their rights to vote in all federal elections, including for president. The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, restored all voting rights. However, it stipulates that regardless of its population growth, DC can not have more electoral college votes than the nation's least populous state — Wyoming, which has just three electors.
In 1973, DC residents were finally allowed to elect a local government, comprising a mayor and a council. However, the US Congress continues to have the authority to modify and review the city's budget and overrule any law it doesn't like. As a result, despite paying more federal taxes per capita than residents of any other US state, the 700,000 people in the nation's capital city are at the mercy of the lawmakers. The residents also have no formal representation in the Senate and only a non-voting House Delegate, which means they have no designated lawmaker to advocate for them in Congress.
Proponents of H.R. 51 believe that all these issues will be resolved if DC is made a state. "For far too long, the more than 700,000 people of Washington, D.C., have been deprived of full representation in the U.S. Congress," a statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget said. "This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded."
Would making DC a state require a Constitutional amendment?
Opponents of statehood argue that any change to DC's current status would require a constitutional amendment. However, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia House Delegate, who sponsored the legislation, says H.R 51 does not eliminate the “seat of government" — it merely shrinks it from the maximum 10 square miles allowed by the US Constitution to a smaller, 2-square-mile area. The new "District" would encompass all federal buildings and monuments — including the White House, the US Capitol, the National Mall, and the Supreme Court.
Does a House approval guarantee a vote in the Senate?
The House vote, which was strictly along party lines with the Democrats voting for and the Republicans voting against the measure, does not guarantee the bill's passage in the Senate. Though Democrats, who occupy half the seats, can depend on Vice President Kamala Harris's tie-breaking vote, the Senate currently requires at least 60 votes to enact new legislation. Hence for H.R 51 to pass, ten Senate Republicans would have to vote in favor, which is extremely unlikely,
The lawmakers could change the requirement to a simple majority, but that would still require all 50 Democrat Senators to vote in favor of H.R. 51. On April 30, 2021, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, told a local radio station that he would not vote for DC statehood. “If Congress wants to make DC a state, it should propose a constitutional amendment,” Manchin said. “Let the people of America vote.”
Fellow Democrat Senator and former astronaut Mark Kelly of Arizona is also lukewarm to the idea. “I haven’t made a decision on it one way or the other,” Kelly told Capitol Hill reporters shortly after the House vote. “I’ll make a decision ultimately based on what’s in the best interest of our country.”
The timeline of when the proposal will be considered in the Senate remains unclear. However, most experts believe that even if the bill passes, the battle will be embroiled in the courts for many years. Regardless of the outcome, Ms. Norton is happy with the progress she has made since her first attempt for DC statehood in 1993, when over 100 House Democrats opposed the idea.
If passed, what would the new state be called?
Since we already have a state called Washington, Ms. Norton suggests naming the new addition The State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — after the nation's first president and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in DC from 1877 to 1895.
Resources: WashingtonPost.com, NPR.com. Whitehouse.gov, Usatoday.con