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Senate Democrats interviewed witnesses on the issue of DC Statehood after the House passed a bill to admit Washington, DC as the newest state. Ava DeSantis writes on what to expect from the Senate debate.

On Friday, House Democrats passed a bill to make Washington, DC the 51st state. The bill received 232 ‘yes’ votes. There was no Republican support for the bill, and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson was the sole Democrat to vote against it. Yesterday, Senate Democrats made their pitch for DC statehood, before the uphill battle of passing the Republican controlled Senate.

“[DC is] home to more than 700,000 Americans, patriotic hardworking people who are passionate about their city and making their country a better place,” Sen. Stabenow of Michigan, described. “Unfortunately, their voices do not have the full power they deserve, because they do not have two elected United States Senators and members of Congress, like every other American in our country, who lives outside of the District of Columbia has.”

Sen. Daines: ‘Go out to where the real people are’

Republicans in the House and Senate vehemently oppose DC statehood. Rep. Jody Hice from Georgia called the move “really all about [getting] two more Democratic senators.” South Carolinian Sen. Lindsay Graham said this “Democratic power grab” will “empower the most radical agenda in modern American politics.” Sen. Daines of Montana told reporters Democrats should “go out to where the real people are at across our country and ask them what they think.”

Sen Schumer, a New York Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, reflected on Daines’ comments at yesterday’s hearing. “We just heard from Senators Danes, Cotton, and Graham, about DC residents and what they said, what, what Danes and Graham said [was] utterly despicable, referring to DC residents. Speaking about his opposition to statehood the junior senator from Montana said that lawmakers should ‘go out to where the real people are across the country and ask them what they think.’ This is a dehumanizing statement about 700,000 hardworking people in the District of Columbia, plain and simple.”

Daines excused the statement, explaining “my point is, the bubble right here, that everybody lives in,” as he gestured around a room full of press.

Residents of DC, Senator Schumer continued, are real people even by Daines’ standards. “The city is home to hundreds of thousands of Americans, most of whom are Black, who hold everyday jobs just like everyday jobs just like everyone else they educate our kids and deliver our groceries, they care for our sick and work in our restaurants and churches and protect the people who work in the cafe.” He said “they work just as hard as everyone else to keep up.” 

Schumer contrasted DC ‘real people’ with Republican congresspeople who attend “[meetings] at the Heritage Foundation or the Federalist,” have dinner at “fancy steak [houses] with big oil lobbyists,” encouraging them to walk around DC and ask them if they consider themselves to be “real people.” Sen. Kaine accused Republicans of inventing their talking points on DC statehood to avoid saying “it will be a democratic state.” He reassured Republicans that voting patterns may change. 

Unequivocally constitutional?

On the panel, Monica Hopkins, the Executive Director of the ACLU of California promised “granting [DC] statehood through an act of Congress [is] unequivocally constitutional.” DC’s Rep. Norton explained “Congress generally has considered three factors in [statehood] decisions.” Considering the resources, local support for statehood, and commitment to democracy, Congress can grant statehood to American territories.

The Senators emphasized DC’s fulfillment of these standards. DC is stronger, than many existing states, economically. “DC pays more federal taxes per capita than any state, and pays more federal taxes than 22 states that have been taken into admission,” Rep. Norton offered, as evidence of DC’s economic prosperity. She continued “the city’s $15.5 billion budget is larger than that of 12 states and, DC’s triple A bond rating is higher than those of 35 states, [and] DC has a higher per capita personal income and gross domestic product than any State of the Union.” 

DC residents voted 86% in support of statehood in 2016, and Norton argued “DC residents have been fighting for [statehood] for more than two centuries.” DC already acts as a state, claimed Mayor Muriel Bowser. “We operate our own schools, we manage our state Medicaid programs, we receive federal block grants, and, like states, we issue driver’s licenses, license plates, birth and death certificates, we regulate banks and insurance companies, we operate our state based affordable care marketplace, and we enforce environmental regulations, and for the purpose of thousands of other federal laws and regulations, we act as a state,” said Bowser.

Kaine again accused Republicans of an ulterior motive, in questioning if the district fulfills historical standards for the admission of new states. “DC has met the criteria,” the Senator said simply, but is “also up against what has been a challenge in the past: prejudice against communities that are majority minority. This would be a great win in terms of meeting our history, but would also be [a] good civil rights [win].”

International law and self-determination

Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland accused the United States of “violating the commitments made in 1975 in Helsinki, to support basic human rights for its citizens.” The Helsinki Final Act was signed by a group of European states, and the US, promising to respect rights of self-determination within and between the signatories. The agreement reads “the participating states reaffirm the universal significance of respect for and effective exercise of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…” 

The United States, said Rep. Norton “is the only democratic country that denies both voting rights in its national legislature and local autonomy to the residents of its nation’s capital.” This violation of rights, the Democrats agreed, is a violation of international law.

Racism in DC history

The final ‘real reason’ for opposition to DC statehood, the Democrats argued, is racism. “The two states that had the hardest time joining the Union, even though they met the criteria, were New Mexico, and Hawaii,” recalled Sen. Tim Kaine. “The biggest obstacle to New Mexico was Spanish speakers, Mexican heritage, and American Indians…And in the 1950s, [it was] extremely difficult for Hawaii to join the Union, because of the predominantly Asian American population.” 

But this obstacle makes the movement for DC statehood an opportunity for real progress, for a state founded around the institution of slavery to grant effectual representation to its large African American population. DC, said Mayor Bowser, is placed “along the Potomac River and between Maryland and Virginia,” both former slaveholding states. This placement “ensured that slavery would be ingrained in every aspect of life, including our buildings, institutions, and the social fabric of our Washington, DC, and with the seat of government firmly on the banks of the Potomac. As a result, “slavery flourished in the new capital.”

Rep. Norton offered her family’s connection to this painful history. “DC statehood is deeply personal for me,” she began. “my great grandfather Richard Holmes escaped slavery from a Virginia plantation, made it as far as the District of Columbia to freedom, but not equal citizenship. With three sets of generations, my family has been denied rights other Americans take for granted.” 

Americans should expect this history to be on the Senate floor for the upcoming debate on DC statehood.

Ava DeSantis is Gen Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She has a background in political science and history at George Washington University.    

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