The 51st State? Washington Revisits an Uphill Cause With New Fervor

WASHINGTON — On the day after a mob rampaged through the halls of Congress, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel E. Bowser, heaped praise on the Metropolitan Police Department officers who had rushed to restore order after the Capitol’s police force was overwhelmed.

She also saw no small amount of irony in their role.

“I am heartened that our police and Guardspeople were able to get control,” she said at a morning briefing, and then added: “I’m upset that 706,000 residents of the District of Columbia did not have a single vote in that Congress yesterday despite the fact their officers were putting their lives on the line to defend democracy.”

The district’s lack of representation in Congress is an old refrain for Ms. Bowser and her predecessors. Leaders in the district have battled for decades to persuade Congress to make Washington, D.C., a state, fruitlessly pressing the argument long embossed on the city’s license plates: that denying it statehood amounts to “taxation without representation.”

But Wednesday’s riot, in which 56 city police officers were injured, has become Example One in a renewed and decidedly uphill effort to change the legislators’ minds. From the city’s growing role in policing protests and unrest to the mayor’s inability to summon the National Guard, statehood supporters argue, continuing Washington’s role as a sort of vassal to the federal bureaucracy is not simply unjust, but also outmoded.

Backers are counting on the Democratic Party’s control of Congress and the White House to reinvigorate a push for statehood legislation that Republicans have long bottled up.

“Having a Democratic president who supports statehood will help us move the bill substantially,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s sole representative in Congress. Like delegates from other areas without statehood, such as Puerto Rico, she can introduce legislation and consider it in House committees, but cannot vote on final passage of bills on the House floor.

Still, she added, “I’m not saying we’re going to move it across the finish line.”

There are plenty of obstacles. The District of Columbia could presumably gain statehood by winning simple majorities in the House and the Senate — the Constitution sets no rules — but the move would surely face a filibuster from Republicans in the Senate, raising the bar to 60 of the chamber’s 100 votes.

Even if statehood were approved, it would face an uncertain fate in court. Congress deliberately fashioned Washington as a federal district, and not a state, after Pennsylvania allowed scores of unpaid soldiers to march on the legislature in Philadelphia in June 1783, causing lawmakers to flee the city. There appears to have been little consideration of what voting rights Washington’s residents would have.

Some experts say only a constitutional amendment could give Washington residents a voice in Congress. Just such an amendment cleared both houses in 1978, but only 16 of the 38 states needed for ratification approved it.

That lack of a voice rankles many in a fast-growing city, who argue that Washington has more residents than Vermont or Wyoming but no say in national affairs. The city’s fight edged marginally forward last summer when the House of Representatives approved legislation granting statehood to much of Washington’s 69 square miles, reducing the remaining District of Columbia to an enclave of federal offices, the Capitol and White House, and the Mall.

That proposal — a dodge around the constitutional mandate for a capital not beholden to any state — went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Senate that was disinclined to create a jurisdiction that would most likely be an impregnable Democratic stronghold. But the unexpected capturing of the Senate by Democrats in Georgia elections on Tuesday has inspired hopes of progress.

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On Wednesday, statehood supporters seized on the Capitol Hill fiasco as further evidence of the case for statehood, citing the federal government’s slow response to calls by Ms. Bowser and others to dispatch the District of Columbia National Guard to protect the Capitol. Governors can summon the National Guard in their states at will, but the District of Columbia Guard can be deployed only after approval by the Pentagon and, by extension, the president.

That approval was delayed while the mob controlled the Capitol, seemingly because President Trump did not sign off on the deployment. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller eventually approved the request after consulting with Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials, but the decision was so opaque that the District of Columbia Council at one point posted an angry statement on its website claiming that the request had been rebuffed.

“It was obvious the Guard was wanted around 3 p.m., and authorization didn’t occur for at least an hour, if not longer,” Phil Mendelson, the Council chairman, said on Thursday. “Folks are trying to find out exactly what happened.”

He added, “I can assure you that if the mayor had the ability to directly call or redeploy the Guard, that would have happened quickly.”

The city’s relations with the Trump administration have long been poisonous. After the federal government drew sharp criticism last summer for its blunt crackdown on people protesting racial inequalities, Ms. Bowser retaliated by declaring a section of Sixteenth Street closest to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza, its new name emblazoned in huge letters on the pavement.

But the differences transcend administrations. They reflect irritants in a relationship that inextricably binds the city’s roughly 710,000 residents — Ms. Bowser’s estimate was slightly off — to a federal colossus that is vastly more powerful. The city regularly supports federal officials with assistance as mundane as building the reviewing stands for inaugural parades and as crucial as rescuing the Capitol from thugs. Ms. Bowser did not respond to a request for an interview.

To be sure, the city has reaped huge rewards from tourism, the federal government’s devotion to the city’s parks and culture, and the throng of businesses whose prosperity rests on the federal government.

But it remains more an appendage than a partner. The District of Columbia government gained substantial authority to govern itself in 1973, but Congress can overturn its laws on a whim (and has done so). The city can arrest people suspected in crimes, but not try them; the federal government runs the courts and decides which cases come to trial. Capitol Hill decides how much federal money the city gets for services like health care and, lately, pandemic relief, and some officials complain that it is being shortchanged.

Beyond the big issues, there is the sand in the gears. One Washington resident collects antique slot machines as a hobby, Mr. Mendelson said, but federal law bars placing slot machines in the capital city. Only an act of Congress can change that, and Congress is not interested. District of Columbia officials want to strictly enforce laws against hate crimes, he said, but discretion in prosecuting felons is reserved for the U.S. attorney for the district, a Trump administration appointee.

And then there are the deadbeat-dad arguments over money: As of October, the District of Columbia government claimed it was still owed $7.2 million for its work in assisting the inauguration of Mr. Trump four years ago, in 2017.

“Collecting has been a problem from time to time,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But I don’t think we have ever been stiffed for an inauguration.”

The city’s advocates are certain that relations will improve under a Biden administration. For starters, Ms. Norton said, Congress could approve legislation she has filed to transfer authority over the District of Columbia National Guard from the federal government to the mayor.

“I’ve been in the minority in my many years in Congress,” she said, “but I expect to be able to do that now that we have control of the Senate.”

Whether statehood might follow seems a long shot at best. But as supporters say, stranger things have happened — as recently as Wednesday, in fact.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Derek Hyer, a professor at American University in Washington who specializes in the city’s development and politics. “But I never thought you’d have a group of right-wing people storm the Capitol and be able to get in. I think anything is possible.”

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