The House of Representatives passed a sweeping election reform bill on Friday known as H.R. 1 and dubbed the “For the People” Act. While Democrats voted nearly unanimously to advance the measure, Republicans were almost uniformly against it. The legislation passed 234-193. The package is jammed with reforms like mandating publicly financed campaigns, automatic voter registration, and restoring the Voting Rights Act. But tucked inside is also a non-binding provision endorsing statehood for the District of Columbia.
The last time the House voted on a D.C. statehood bill was in 1993 when 105 Democrats and 172 Republicans, in a rare demonstration of bipartisan unity, rolled it up, lit it up, and passed it around. This memory of back-slapping comity has remained fragrant for only one party, which has since enjoyed razor-thin margins of victory in the electoral college and the Senate, which in turn have yielded tax “reform” and confirmations (at an industrial scale) of conservative judges.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting House member, introduced a stand-alone statehood bill on the first day of the 116th Congress in January, which quickly gathered a substantial number of cosponsors. She was also able to get the non-binding language inserted into H.R. 1. Norton has served as D.C.’s representative since 1991. She spoke with Ben Paviour for a Washington Monthly story about D.C. statehood, published before the midterm elections. At the time, her stand-alone bill had 159 co-sponsors. Today, it has 181.
In the Senate, Democrat Tom Carper has long been the brave, lone advocate for statehood. He first introduced a statehood bill in 2013. As recently as 2014, Paviour reported, Democrats “roundly ignored” his hearings on statehood. That, too, has changed. Before the midterms, his own statehood bill “attracted twenty cosponsors” including “2020 presidential contenders Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand.” Sen. Carper reintroduced his bill on Feb. 28, this time with 29 co-sponsors, including three more presidential candidates: Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer officially made D.C. statehood a top Democratic priority in a speech he delivered on the Senate floor.
“Even though we don’t talk about it enough, we have a population larger than two states living here in Washington, D.C., without full congressional representation,” Schumer said. This marks the first time statehood has ever been made a priority for the Senate Democratic caucus and the first time it has ever been endorsed by leaders in both chambers of Congress.
As both Paviour and Washington Monthly Editor in Chief Paul Glastris have argued on these pages, securing statehood for D.C., as well as Puerto Rico, is one of the most tangible things Democrats can do to sustain long-term power in Washington. They would gain four senators and two more House members. Imagine what kind of difference that would make. “If Democrats are serious about advancing their agenda in the bitter partisan present, they may come around to bolder power moves,” Paviour wrote. “If they are looking for a place to start, they need only step into their own backyard.”
It seems Democrats may have gotten the message.