Ven. Feb 26th, 2021

[ENG] The Challenges To Turn Washington, D.C. Into the 51st American State

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Articolo pubblicato su YOUNG DIPLOMATS. THE LEADERS OF TOMORROW

di Alessia Salzano

The worldwide famous American flag could soon have an extra star. In fact, one of the most pressing issue that has echoed amidst the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. for a long time is that of the district’s statehood. The city’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, has showed an unwavering commitment to the cause, pointing out that “Washington is the only capital of a democratic nation that denies its residents a vote in the federal legislature”.

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More specifically, the local population has neither a Senator nor a House member in Congress, but just a delegate – Eleanor Norton Holmes – who, like delegates from other areas without statehood such as Guam and Puerto Rico, can only draft legislation and consider it in Committees, but cannot vote on final passage of bills on the House floor. 

In addition, residents of D.C. pay the highest federal taxes per capita but still are denied voices and votes, thus making the current situation a perfect example of ‘taxation without representation’. But the reasons to embrace a changing of status for D.C. don’t stop here. Firstly, the District of Columbia is large enough to be a state, since the area counts around 712,000 residents, more people than Vermont and Wyoming. Secondly, a favorable point toward creating a new state is its adherence to constitutional principles.

The U.S. Constitution says indeed that the Congress has the authority to redefine the borders of the federal district and shrink its size. Such act has already been done in 1846, when the portion west of the Potomac river was returned to Virginia. Following this frame, there would be a resizing of the federal capital to a small area which encompasses, among others, the White House, the Capitol building, the Supreme Court and the National Mall. The rest of the city would become the 51st state, named the Washington, Douglas Commonwealth after abolitionist Fredrick Douglas. 

Even though not brand new in the political landscape of the capital, the fight for granting statehood has recently returned into the spotlight. The racial justice turmoil following George Floyd’s death and the assault of Capitol Hill advanced by pro-Trump demonstrators put an even stronger emphasis on the need to provide safety and independence for Washingtonians. While the recent attack took place, Mayor Bowser promptly requested to the federal government to dispatch the district’s National Guard, but the response was quite slow. Contrary to governors who can summon the Guard of their states at will, the District’s one can only be deployed after approval given by both the Pentagon and the President. Despite the particular circumstance of the mob, Donald Trump did not sign off on the deployment, and proper aid arrived only after a joint consultation of the Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and the Vice President Mike Pence. 

For all the reasons mentioned above, it is not astonishing that Mayor Bowser, along with a lot of high-profile D.C. politicians, endorse the cause of statehood. For instance, in a tweet that was referring to the House Resolution 51 – the Washington D.C. Admission Act, passed by the lower chamber of the Congress with a vote of 232-180 on 26 June 2020, the new President claimed: “D.C. should be a state. Pass it on”.

Kamala Harris, the first woman ever to be elected Vice President, also wrote on the famous social media, stating that lack of representation for the people from the district “it’s undemocratic and it must end.” Previously, both former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama supported the legislation to give birth to the 51st state. But the path to realize D.C. sovereignty is clearly marked by sharp obstacles. Notably, Republicans expressed vehement opposition to the Resolution 51, labelling the attempt as an act that “would empower the most radical agenda in modern American politics”.

However, it is worth noticing that this resistance to the bill occurred last summer, when Republicans fully controlled the Senate. Now, the unexpected capturing of the upper chamber by Democrats following the runoff elections of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, means that Democrats hold 50-50 majority. Joe Biden can therefore implement his legislative agenda more easily, with vice President Harris able to cast any tie-breaking vote.

Despite this remarkable accomplishment, the topic of statehood, which quoting again the words of Mayor Bowser “must get on the president’s desk within the first 100 days”, could cross the so called ‘filibuster’, a tactic largely used in the U.S. Senate which consists of trying to delay or block a vote on a bill by extending debate on a specific measure. This obstruction could seriously impede any progress to make D.C. a state, considering that the ‘cloture rule’ would come into play, hence requiring 60 votes to cut off debate and moving to the voting procedures.

In order to curtailing the use of filibuster, the Senate can adopt options such as setting a new precedent, placing restrictions on its use or even changing the rule itself. Nevertheless, those scenarios are inevitably destined to clash in an arena of contrasting views. On one hand, it is undeniable that being a state would give to the District of Columbia considerable advantages in terms of representation, as well as a highly probable progressive track that would see Senators engaging on workers protection, paid sick leave and police reform. On the other hand, there are still strict constitutionalists who highlight that this possibility constitutes a contradiction with the intent of the Founding Fathers, who decided that the center of the government did not have to reside in a state. They wrote in Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution that “the congress shall have power to exercise exclusive legislation…over such district, as may become the Seat of the Government of the United States”.

The battle for statehood is fierce, the managing of the problem complicated, so only time will tell whether the 117th Congress will be capable of calming Washingtonians’ grievances, turning the dream into a reality.