A Perspective by Intern Jamari O’Neal
If you've been paying attention to congressional politics these past two years, you may have been struck by the push for Washington, DC statehood. From the outside, it might seem very sudden but for DC residents, this struggle has spanned generations.
DC is home to 700,000 people who are denied their full rights as Americans. For example, the denial of DC statehood is a direct barrier to abortion access in DC. PPADMV is proud to fight alongside community partners for DC statehood – and will continue to fight for as long as it takes.
In 1973, the federal Home Rule Act granted DC some self-governance through a locally elected mayor and DC Council, but it is limited. For example, every bill passed by the DC Council and signed by the Mayor has to go to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period (60 days for changes to the criminal code) before it can become law. Archaically, Home Rule requires that bills be delivered in-person to the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. When this became impossible after the violent January 6 insurrection, DC was unable to enact laws passed by the DC Council government for nearly three months. Furthermore, Congress has final authority over the DC budget — a power members of Congress frequently abuse by attaching riders to the budget or blocking parts of it altogether.
Many of the same politicians who rail against the perils of “big government” intervening in people's daily lives nevertheless hypocritically meddle with the lives of DC residents. Congress routinely controls how DC can spend on health care for its citizens, creating onerous barriers for District residents that it cannot for Americans in the 50 states. One obvious example is the Dornan Amendment — a rider Congress attaches to DC’s annual appropriations bills. The Dornan Amendment has for decades prohibited DC from using locally-raised tax dollars to cover abortion care for the more than 250,000 people enrolled in DC Medicaid. As currently drafted, the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022 eliminate the Dornan Amendment and other riders infringing on DC’s local autonomy, but even if passed, the threat looms for the future. DC natives have seen policies that affect DC turned into a bargaining chip through legislative deal making before, and we know that statehood is the only lasting method of protecting our rights.
The Dornan Amendment is not the only way Congress interferes with DC Medicaid coverage. Many DC natives, myself included, have benefited from Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. However, because the District has no voting members in Congress, DC has no say when it comes to repeated congressional efforts to repeal ObamaCare or undermine DC’s efforts to cover low-income residents.
It’s relatively easy for Congress to intervene in DC affairs and many members of Congress abuse their authority and treat DC and its residents as pawns to make political points. Some interventions are petty and have little impact on folks’ day-to-day lives. For example, in 2020, Congress forced DC to rename a street outside my church (and more relevantly the Cuban embassy) after a deceased Cuban dissident as a protest of the Cuban government. However, other congressional interventions have been more serious — exacerbating public health risks and interfering with civil rights. In the past Congress has blocked a DC needle exchange program intended to curb the HIV/AIDS crisis and in 1981, Congress blocked the repeal of anti-sodomy laws used to persecute the LGBT+ community.
DC students also are frequent victims of federal meddling. Members of Congress routinely attempt to alter DC’s educational standards to score ideological victories at the expense of DC students. Over the past two years, members of Congress sought to overturn qualification standards passed by the DC Council requiring teachers in child care centers to get an associate's degree in early education and center directors to have a bachelor's degree. Members of Congress have also attempted to ban DC public schools from teaching curricula that acknowledges America’s complex history of racial discrimination.
Further, although DC has a locally elected Attorney General, the office has limited power — many cases are handled by a U.S. Attorney appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. These attorneys frequently act against the wishes of DC officials and residents, who have no power to hold them accountable.
The fight for DC statehood has always been a civil rights issue. Since the 1800s, DC has had a significant Black population and with a current Black population of 46%, DC would be the first state with a plurality of Black residents. For example, in 1890, while advocating that DC governance be stripped from locals and given to a Presidential commission, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama made the rationale for federal control of DC explicit saying that Congress should “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District” and that it was necessary to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats,” an unconscionably derogatory reference to Black residents of DC.
Any governance structure less than statehood fails to protect the rights of DC residents. It’s time for Congress to finally defend the rights of DC citizens by admitting DC as a state.
In April, the House passed H.R.51 which would admit DC as the 51st state. The new state would be called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth'' and would “comprise all of the land currently included within the city's boundaries other than federal land as outlined in the bill.” Unfortunately, S.51 — the Senate version of H.R.51 — faces a tough fight as the filibuster currently blocks legislation that does not have 60 votes. This is an all hands on deck moment, and we need your help to win this fight. Call your Senators using this script and encourage them to support increased efforts to move statehood forward, and join PPADMV as we continue fighting for statehood.