An inclusive democracy Demands DC statehood
Eleanor Holmes Norton and John Sarbanes, The Hill (Op-Ed)
Every student learns that the American Revolution was born, at least in part, out of the conviction that there can be “no taxation without representation.” More than just a slogan, this rallying cry represents the essence of self-determination – the fundamental right of all people to be ruled by their own hand and to choose their own government.
Over two centuries, we have built upon that core principle, with painstaking and persistent work, to make our democracy more representative and inclusive. But today, we face significant structural challenges that threaten the state of our democracy and undermine our right to self-rule.
Exploiting a series of rulings by the Supreme Court, states across the country have made it more difficult for Americans – especially minorities and young voters – to access the ballot box. At the same time, wealthy donors and special interests have flooded our campaigns with cash, including record-breaking sums of secret political money. And in the White House, the Trump administration has shredded federal ethics laws, giving corporate lobbyists sweeping control over the regulatory process. The result is that millions of Americans now feel locked out of their own democracy.
One of the most glaring examples of disenfranchisement can be found in our nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, where residents have been denied voting rights and full self-government for 219 years. Residents of the nation’s capital are held to all federal laws and pay all federal taxes, yet they are denied voting representation in their own Congress. To add insult to injury, even their local governing authority is subordinated to Congress, which wields ultimate power over the District, including the right to overturn local laws, referendums, and spending decisions.
This month, the House Oversight and Reform Committee took a key step toward reversing this gross injustice by passing Congresswoman Norton’s D.C. statehood bill, which would establish the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as our nation’s 51st state.
This vote has been decades in the making.
In 1973, Congress granted limited home rule to Washington, allowing the District to elect a mayor and council. Twenty years later, a D.C. statehood measure was brought to the House floor by Norton for a vote, but it failed to pass. However, the District did not lose faith. In 2016, the effort went directly to D.C. voters, where more than 85 percent of residents approved a referendum in support of statehood. The message was crystal clear: District residents demand equality.
In 2019, the fight for D.C. statehood continued as House Democrats moved swiftly to pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act – a comprehensive anti-corruption and clean elections bill that would protect the right to vote, strengthen ethics laws, and reduce the corrosive influence of big money in politics. Importantly, H.R. 1 declared that District residents deserved the full citizenship rights that only statehood could provide. The bill’s passage in the House marked the first time in history that a chamber of Congress had endorsed D.C. statehood.
There are no practical reasons for the District to be denied statehood. Its 705,000 residents, a greater population than either Wyoming or Vermont, pay the highest per-capita federal taxes in the country. The D.C. government is fiscally strong, with a triple-A credit rating. And statehood can be achieved while still satisfying the Constitution’s requirements for a federal district. Specifically, Norton’s bill would reduce the federal district to include the land running from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. This change is fully within Congress’ authority.
The founding ideals of this nation demand D.C. statehood. The proud American declaration that our government is of, by and for the people must no longer be marred by an asterisk. All must be included. This month, with committee passage of the D.C. statehood bill, Congress took a major step forward in achieving that goal.
Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia has led the decades-long fight for D.C. Statehood in the U.S. Congress. John Sarbanes of Maryland chairs the Democracy Reform Task Force and assembled H.R. 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives.