Calls for DC statehood reignited following Capitol insurrection: The fight for the 51st state explained

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A view of a security fence at the base of Capitol Hill during heightened security concerns over possible protests or violence tomorrow March 3, 2021, in Washington, DC. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
  • The 700,000 residents of DC have long been denied the representation granted to their fellow Americans.

  • But the chaos of the January 6 siege has led to reinvigorated calls for granting DC statehood.

  • Activists are pushing Democrats to use their advantage to do so, but the Senate poses a challenge.

  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On January 6, as pro-Trump rioters broke through police barriers and breached the nation's Capitol building in Washington DC, the city's mayor could do little to stop the attack.

Unlike each state's governor, who serve as de facto commanders of National Guard forces in their domain, DC's Mayor Muriel Bowser had no power to send in military forces as the siege turned deadly that day.

Instead, Washington, DC's National Guard unit is commanded by the President of the United States - then Donald Trump, the man who hours earlier, had told the very crowd now storming the Capitol that "if you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore."

As the violence escalated, Bowser had to ask the Department of Defense, an executive branch of the federal government acting on behalf of the president, for permission to send in troops, and has since blamed the district's limitations and her inability to directly deploy the National Guard for the slow and muddled response on January 6.

The riots' aftermath has served as a stark reminder to the nation of just how little power the 700,000 residents of Washington, DC, actually have, despite living in the nation's capital.

DC residents themselves, though, hardly need to be reminded of their paradoxical political disadvantages. From the district's non-voting congressional representative to its shadow senators, Washingtonians have long been denied the full rights of citizenship guaranteed to hundreds of millions of their fellow Americans.

The majority of DC residents have long yearned to join the union - in a 2016 referendum a staggering 86% of DC voters voted in favor of joining the union as the 51st state - but the rest of the country has historically been lukewarm, or even downright averse to the idea.

But the pandemonium of January 6 has led to reinvigorated calls for DC statehood, and a high-profile committee hearing on the matter this week has pushed the issue back into the spotlight. The albeit, narrow Democratic control of both Congress and the Presidency may present the best chance activists have had - or will have again - to add a 51st star to the flag.

From its inception, the city has been embroiled in politics

Washington, DC, was founded in 1790 as the distinguished capital for a new nation. Its location on the Potomac River bordered by Maryland and Virginia was chosen as a compromise, famously made between founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.

At only 68 square miles, the district is geographically small. But its 700,000 residents make it more populous than both Vermont and Wyoming and comparable in population to states like Delaware and Alaska.

Whereas both Vermonters and Wyomingites have two senators and one representative advocating for their interests in Congress, Washingtonians are stuck with one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and two "shadow senators," lawmakers not officially sworn in or seated in the US Senate.

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Supporters for DC Statehood cheer as drivers honk their horns during the morning commute outside the Rayburn Building in Washington, DC on February, 11, 2020. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Their lack of true Senatorial representation means DC residents have no voice in determinations of Supreme Court justices, US Ambassadors, heads of federal agencies, or even leadership for federal courts within the district's own boundaries.

Washingtonians pay federal taxes, register for the nation's selective services, and contribute to the country's economy. Still, they lack the full voting rights, budget control, and representation America grants their fellow citizens.

And it's only within the last 60 years that the district has obtained some authoritative freedom in governing itself. DC residents have been able to vote for the President of their own country since only 1964, and they elected their mayor for the first time in 1973.

For many, the issue of DC statehood is simple; one that boils down to a catchy, historical slogan: no taxation without representation.

Race plays an equally crucial role in the fight for statehood

The district's daytime population surges to more than a million due to the barrage of political junkies and academics who commute into DC each day for work. But when evening strikes and the professionals board the metro back to Virginia and Maryland, approximately 700,000 residents remain.

Nearly half of those residents are Black, according to 2019 US Census data.

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Demonstrators protest against racial injustice to mark Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, near the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States, June 19, 2020. Photo by Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty

Activists have long argued that the district's lack of representation contributes to the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black voters in the US.

In 2018, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt calculated that the Senate "gives the average Black American only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American."

The average Hispanic American, by his accounts, has only 55% the representation as the average white American, fuel for the similar fight for statehood that Puerto Rico is waging.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter told the Guardian's David Smith that DC and Puerto Rico's outcast status is a "fundamental democratic flaw" that "reeks of hypocrisy"

"At the end of the day, you have states from Utah to Montana to others that have gained statehood early on with less question, with less critique than DC and Puerto Rico," she told the outlet. "The only reason why it is a debate or even a question is because of who makes up the majority of both of those places."

If the district was granted statehood, it would be the only plurality-Black state in the union, according to the New Columbia Statehood Commission.

Republican lawmakers oppose the movement, fearful a 51st state would hand Democrats a political advantage

The GOP has long been opposed to the prospect of adding new states to the union and for the most part, have been forthcoming with their reasons why.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump said in an interview that "DC will never be a state."

"Why? So we can have two more Democratic - Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That'll never happen," he said. "Why would the Republicans ever do that?"

The former president was almost certainly right in his assessment - Washington's diverse and liberal population would likely vote Democrats into office, providing two additional votes for the party in the Senate.

Later that year at a press conference, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, said granting DC statehood would be "unconstitutional."

"This is about expanding the Senate map to accommodate the most radical agenda that I've ever seen since I've been up here," Graham told reporters, saying the move would be a "bad deal" for his home state.

But statehood activists and residents argue the district's political preferences shouldn't act as a deterrent to fulfilling the people's rights.

The legislation to grant statehood already exists - but passing it will prove difficult

Washington's non-voting delegate, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, first introduced the Washington, DC, Admission Act in 2019.

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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks at a rally sponsored by Veterans for D.C. Statehood on Veterans Day at Freedom Plaza on Monday Nov. 11, 2019. Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In addition to granting the capital city statehood, the bill would shrink the federal district to a smaller area that encompassed the most important federal buildings, including the White House, Capitol building, and Supreme Court, in a move that supporters of the bill argue would sidestep the issue of constitutionality, leaving a piece of the federal district intact.

Republicans counter that statehood can't be granted except through a constitutional amendment, an arduous process that requires significant levels of bipartisan and state support.

Norton's bill would also rename the new state Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The historic legislation was passed last summer, by the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives, though the bill was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Now, the act has been reintroduced in both chambers of the new Congress, but like many of the Democrats' progressive initiatives, it faces an uphill climb in the 50-50 Senate.

In order to pass, all 50 Democrats would need to vote in favor of the bill and convince 10 Republicans to join them, a feat that is seemingly improbable, if not impossible.

Many statehood activists are hoping Democrats will instead focus their attention first on gutting the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority of 51 to pass most legislation. Doing so could open the door not only to DC statehood, but a berth of other progressive priorities from student debt forgiveness to an increased minimum wage.

But overturning the filibuster could prove an insurmountable obstacle, as at least two moderate Democratic senators have made clear their opposition to doing so, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia declaring he would "never" change his mind on the filibuster.

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other moderate Democrat opposed to ousting the filibuster, are also two of the six Senate Democrats who did not cosponsor the statehood bill that passed in the last Congress.

Still, Washingtonians aren't giving up hope. If there's ever a time to do it, it's now, they argue.

In a House Oversight and Reform Committee meeting earlier this week, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser was direct and firm in making the case for DC statehood. She highlighted the racial elements at play and rejected Republicans' claims that the fight is a power grab by Democrats.

"The truth is, over 220 years we've had various experiences - of suffrage for Black men, to all of it being stripped away, to having appointed officials, to the situation where we are now, which is limited home rule," Bowser said according to The Washington Post. "What we know is that we don't have representation here in this House. . . . This is anti-democratic, and it's un-American, and it has to be fixed now."

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