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A Step Forward for Democracy in D.C.

“The capital of the nation is the last plantation!” “Free D.C.!”

A sculpture of a red hand labelled "51" and "Give Me A Vote"

“Free D.C.!”

For decades, residents of “America’s last colony” have clamored for the same irrevocable rights as other citizens of the United States.

The movement to bring democracy to the District of Columbia took a step forward on Monday, September 15, when local political leaders and representatives of pro-democracy groups testified in favor of statehood for the nation’s capital city before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

The subject of the committee hearing, which was led by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), was the “New Columbia Admissions Act” (S. 132; with counterpart bill H.R. 292 in the U.S. House).

Among those testifying were D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who holds a nonvoting seat in the House, and Mayor Vince Gray. The hearing is unlikely to lead to passage of the two bills any time soon, given Congress’s ongoing gridlock and Republican hostility to D.C. statehood.

But the hearing represents an advance for the statehood movement because a new unity behind the goal of statehood was on display.

Until recently, many of the same officials who now seek statehood preferred another goal, “D.C. voting rights,” which meant a single voting seat for the District in the House of Representatives. Ten years ago, Del. Norton and other Democratic leaders who favored D.C. voting rights tried to discourage D.C. democracy advocates from demanding statehood. Endorsement of statehood was removed from the Democratic Party’s national platform in 2004 and still hasn’t been restored. The promotion of D.C. voting rights legislation led many people to confuse voting representation in Congress with statehood.

This was a mistake. Self-determination and self-government, not representation in a legislature, are the true measures of democracy. Colonies in Africa and Asia and conquered European nations like Ireland held voting seats in the legislatures of nations that ruled over them, even while they suffered exploitation and oppression. Many of these colonies, like Algeria, a French possession until 1962, became free only after violent revolutions.

Our own Founding Fathers and Mothers in the thirteen colonies fought for independence, not voting rights. Patrick Henry never said “Give me a vote in Parliament or give me death.”

The D.C. voting rights legislation went nowhere, and not only because of Republican contempt for the rights of D.C. residents. Even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, most recently in 2009 and 2010, no meaningful expansion of the rights of D.C. residents has taken place after limited Home Rule was granted in 1973. Legislation to grant statehood to D.C. was defeated in the U.S. House in 1993 by a vote of 277 to 153.

Statehood advocates (those not distracted by D.C. voting rights) have always understood that the lack of voting representation in Congress is just one of several reasons for statehood, and that self-government and full equality under the U.S. Constitution for the District with its black majority remain part of the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement. (For a more thorough history of the D.C. democracy movement, see “The D.C. Statehood Papers: Writings on D.C. Statehood & Self-government” by Sam Smith.)

Until D.C. becomes a state, Congress holds the power to veto locally passed decisions and impose unwanted laws, policies, and budgets on D.C. residents. Congress threatens to nullify a local marijuana legalization measure: in July, 2014, a Maryland Republican Representative inserted an amendment into the District’s 2015 Appropriation Bill that would stop decriminalization of marijuana from taking effect and remove the initiative from the D.C. ballot in November. In June, House Republicans blocked funding for a law passed by D.C. Council that would eliminate the threat of jail time for marijuana possession. In 1998, Congress overturned a ballot measure for medical marijuana (Initiative 59) that had passed with a 69% majority.

Congress has imposed zero-tolerance laws and a charter-school program; outlawed needle exchange in D.C. to prevent HIV transmission; and prohibited District government from taxing commuters, a source of revenue for all other cities. Congress members have tried to enact the death penalty, impose a school voucher program, and deny benefits for same-sex couples. In 2001, Congress, through an appointed Financial Control Board, ordered Mayor Anthony Williams to dismantle D.C. General Hospital, the District’s sole full-service public health facility.

In the only public referendum on the issue, over 60% of D.C. residents voted in favor of statehood in 1980.

Groups that have consistently advocated statehood, like the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition, the D.C. Statehood Green Party, D.C. Statehood — Yes We Can, and Neighbors United For D.C. Statehood are encouraged that Democratic leaders have seen the light and embraced the call for genuine democracy in the form of statehood.

Weaving a New Star

The New Columbia Admissions Act is consistent with arguments by statehood advocates that statehood for the District can be achieved by an Act of Congress (requiring a 51% simple majority), without a constitutional amendment (requiring ratification by 2/3 of states). In 1846, an Act of Congress removed Arlington from D.C. and ceded it to Virginia, proving that Congress can legally alter the District’s borders.

Congress may therefore reduce the constitutionally mandated federal enclave to encompass only the federal properties (White House, Capitol, Mall, etc.), after which D.C. would be admitted to the union as a state, just as all other states were admitted after the initial thirteen colonies. Along with freedom from Congress’s control, D.C. residents will enjoy the same voting representation in Congress as all other Americans: one Representative and two Senators.

For many D.C. activists, the goals of statehood and economic, social, and racial justice are inseparable.

“Within the constraints of colonial Home Rule, we must be determined to push its limits by putting in place a progressive D.C. tax structure, expanding funding of our low-income budget, and establishing a D.C. public bank holding our revenue instead of Wall Street. These measures would help energize our local movement for D.C. statehood,” said David Schwartzman, D.C. Statehood Green Party activist and candidate for “Shadow” U.S. Senator.

“The opportunity to become a state and enjoy full constitutional rights and citizenship will also be an opportunity to further reduce income inequality and better the quality of life for all D.C. residents. We won’t suffer Congress’s veto power over our laws and budgets. We can assert control over our own school system, rather than tolerate the imposition of charter schools by Congress.”

D.C. statehood has been the D.C. Statehood Green Party’s most conspicuous plank since its founding as the D.C. Statehood Party in 1970 by Julius Hobson and other local civil rights leaders. The D.C. Statehood Green Party is an affiliate of the Green Party, which has endorsed D.C. statehood in its national platform since the party was founded.

Ten years ago, the D.C. Statehood Green Party and Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition helped draft a petition that was sent to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitor compliance with treaties that the U.S. has signed and ratified. In 2006, the Human Rights Committee found that the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ruling was the result of a decade of work by democracy advocate Tim Cooper.

The achievement of statehood ultimately depends on two things. First, the current enthusiasm among D.C. leaders for statehood must be sustained. Any dilution of the New Columbia Admissions Act, in the name of negotiation and compromise, must be resisted.

Second, statehood will require vociferous support from Americans who live outside the District. People who live in cities across the U.S. have good reason to join the demand. City populations are underrepresented in Congress, especially in the U.S. Senate, where sparsely populated states have the same representation as states with dense urban centers. (D.C.’s population is larger than Wyoming’s and Vermont’s.) The District’s new Reps and Senators would thus speak for city-dwellers in other states, whose interests are often similar to those of D.C. residents.

The admission of a state whose population is slightly more than half black (50.1% in 2012) would incrementally help correct another severe form of underrepresentation in Congress.

President Obama, when asked recently about D.C. statehood, said “I’m for it.” But the White House declined to send a representative to the September 15 hearing. As the November 4 midterm election approaches, the movement to weave a 51st star into the flag will benefit from speakouts and rallies in Washington, D.C., as well as challenges from people living in states across the country directed at their Congress members and the Obama Administration: “If you support democracy and human rights for all Americans, help enact D.C. statehood.”

Photo by Mr.TinDC released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.

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Scott McLarty

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