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Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser cheers supporters at a DC Statehood rally. | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

On this episode of Today, Explained, author Derek Musgrove and congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton explain why residents in the District of Columbia are tired of “taxation without representation.” 

On September 19, House Democrats held the first hearing on DC statehood in 25 years. It was introduced by Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton — Washington, DC’s non-voting representative. The Washington, DC, Admission Act — also known as “HR 51” since it would make DC America’s 51st state — probably won’t be enacted while Republicans are in control of the Senate. But, Norton told Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram, DC is closer to gaining statehood:

“It is certainly true that it has been controversial for every state to get into the union. It usually took two states coming in at the same times so that people were assured there would be some evenness. Look, we understand we’re breaking the mold. We’re a city, we’re trying to become a state. And a lot of parting of the waters will have to take place [but] we already see that beginning to happen.”

If Norton’s bill passes, the “Washington, Douglass, Commonwealth” would get two senators and a full voting House member. The federal enclave would become their state capital and, though Norton admits it would be much smaller than other state capitals, “You’ll still have a capital,” she said.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan writes, the bill would give residents full voting congressional representation, and end the need for congressional review of local DC laws. The district’s roughly 710,000 residents — more than Vermont or Wyoming — would become full-fledged members of the union. In 2016, a referendum on DC statehood won an overwhelming 80 percent of votes in support.

On this episode of Today, Explained — which also happened to be the podcast’s 400th — author and professor Derek Musgrove and Norton explain exactly why DC’s residents are so incensed at their lack of statehood in 2019. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.


Sean Rameswaram

Today, the House of Representatives has its first hearing on DC statehood in almost 30 years. Representatives will be talking about House Bill 51 — get it? It would provide for the admission of the State of Washington, DC, into the Union. But before we get there, we have to establish why Washington, DC, isn’t another state in the Union — why it’s just a district — a federal district. I asked Derek Musgrove. He’s one of the authors of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.

Derek Musgrove

So the origins of that idea — of a federal district outside of the purview of any state — really has its origins in a protest by Pennsylvania revolutionary war soldiers decommissioned at this point in 1783.

They hadn’t been paid. They headed to the State House to protest to the governor that they should be paid. And along the way they actually passed Congress.

Some of the folks that were in the building essentially call Congress into session. They don’t have a quorum. They say that these soldiers had mutinied and had menaced them. And the soldiers did menace them a little bit. They sort of made fun of ’em, you know, they shouted epithets in the windows at them.

What they draw from that sort of made-up crisis is that they should not be beholden to a state governor or state legislature for their own protection and for managing the place where they meet — the federal town or the federal district. And so roughly starting about 1783 they come up with the idea that there should be a federal district set off from the states that is completely and totally under the purview of Congress. And that’s the sort of the germ of the idea that leads to eventually Washington, DC.

Sean Rameswaram

But this is gonna be a place where people live, where there’s commerce, where there’s interstate travel and all sorts of needs. Who’s gonna figure all that stuff out? Is Congress gonna govern this town or from the outset? Is there an idea of how this will all work?

Derek Musgrove

There’s not a clear idea. There is the expectation among all these folks that the residents of the federal town or the federal district will have access to democratic governance. But they never come up with a clear plan for how it’s going to happen.

So Congress moves to town from Philadelphia. And they say, “Well, now we’re that we’re here, we now are going to take this area,” — which used to be parts of Maryland and Virginia, it’s essentially a 10-mile square straddling the Potomac and Anacostia rivers — “and we are going to place it under federal jurisdiction.”

By doing that, however, and not presenting a plan whereby the people within that federal district have representation in Congress, they effectively strip the residents of the District of a vote in Congress. Because if you’re no longer in a state well then you have no way of voting for a member of the House or a member of the Senate.

Sean Rameswaram

So how does this sit? People start settling this federal District, where they don’t have any federal representation.

Derek Musgrove

Initially, you have a situation where look the city’s got absolutely no access to governance and many white DC residents are perfectly happy with that, particularly elite white DC residents.

Sean Rameswaram

Why is that?

Derek Musgrove

Because they get all this money from the federal government in the form of the Congressional payment and most importantly black folks don’t vote. I mean they really saw that as a danger to governance in the city. And some of them in fact didn’t want poor whites to vote either and so that was, that was a plus for them as well.

And they figured, Look, we can sit down with business leaders we can sit down with members of Congress, smoke a few cigars, drink a little bourbon, and we can run the city just through these great personal relationships that we have. That’s the best way to run a city. But if you start bringing in the rabble, the African Americans who are laying pavement out there on Pennsylvania Avenue, or the Irish mechanics who are you know doing work down by the canal in Georgetown, if you bring them into the conversation, they’ll ruin American democracy, and specifically DC local democracy. This way we can keep ’em out.

Now those out groups those groups that were seen as a threat by these elites began demanding some type of vote pretty early, on starting in the late 19th century.

Labor leaders, African Americans began asking for home rule, what we call home rule today. They wanted a local government.

And they’re consistently pushed back all the way through the late 19th century, the early 20th century. And they can’t get the whole pot. They can’t get a city council and a mayor. And so what advocates of returning democracy to the district do is they essentially piecemeal it. And so the first major success in the effort to gain some voting back in the district is in 1960.

When a primarily white group of lobbyists pushed for the 23rd Amendment, which would give DC residents the vote in presidential elections. And that is passed very quickly within a year. The first presidential election that we vote in is 1964.

After that [in] 1971 you get the non-voting delegate election and then the big one comes in 1974 with the Home Rule election, where we get a city council and a mayor. And so a hundred years after the end of Reconstruction, not only do we have a mayor and a DC Council that are elected by their citizens, but the citizenry is roughly at this point 70 percent black, and the people who sit on that council, and who go into the mayor’s office, are almost to a man and woman civil rights, Black Power, and anti-poverty activists.

And so not only does DC get democracy, but really it gets representatives of all of the major social movements of the 1960s in government.

Sean Rameswaram

So, after DC gets local representation, the question shifts to federal representation. How does DC do it?

Derek Musgrove

There’s literally three ways to do it. First is you retrocede to Maryland. Another option is to alter the Constitution to get DC treated as though it were a state in Congress for the matters of representation.

Sean Rameswaram

Right. DC has electoral votes from the 23rd amendment back in the ’60s, but this is saying, let’s get DC voting members in the House and Senate. What’s number three?

Sean Rameswaram

Third one is straight statehood. And that’s obviously the biggest ask. And it’s also the ask right now in House Bill 51. How’s it initially received back then?

Derek Musgrove

Statehood had never been a particularly well-regarded strategy in the District up until the 1970s. People were just focused on trying to get home rule or just trying to get representation in Congress. I mean, they never thought that big. And then in 1969 a bunch of black power activists — Chuck Stone who was editor of the Afro newspaper, Jesse Anderson who a local Episcopal priest, and Julius Hobson, famous local black power activist — held a news conference and formed a DC statehood committee and said look, we are gonna make sure we get statehood by any means necessary, paraphrasing Malcolm X, and this is in 1969 and their announcement really went nowhere.

The idea sort of percolates out there largely through their activism through the 1970s But then Julius Hobson dies of cancer in 1977, and the statehood party begins to fall apart. And so here you have a situation where statehood kind of follows this very specific trail, which is that people come up with the idea it resonates just a little bit but it never gets a critical mass and then it begins to recede.

Sean Rameswaram

What’s the closest DC’s ever been to statehood?

Derek Musgrove

To statehood? You could argue now! The DC vote which is under the able stewardship of Bo Shuff who’s a very talented political operator.

And you know he and his team at DC Vote have been able to gain well over 200 co-sponsors for a statehood bill in the House of Representatives.

Sean Rameswaram

What’s standing in the way? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Republicans?

Derek Musgrove

Republicans have, since 1980, every single four years, stated unequivocally in their party platform that they oppose representation in Congress, however it may be achieved, for the residents of the District of Columbia. In fact, in a lot of those party platforms, particularly the 1990s, they actually cheerlead for a rollback of home rule and John Kasich sort of laid out why that would be in 2016 when he sat down for an interview with the Washington Post he just said, “Look, it’s a non-starter. That’s just two more votes in the Senate for the Democratic Party. It’s not going to happen.”

You know the Post sort of pushed back and said, “There’s 700,000 people who live there who are American citizens.’ And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s not going to happen.” And so you know you could you accuse one party of partisanship. Yes. And you could accuse the other party of partisanship. I think that what DC residents have to figure out in the midst of all of this is how they get forward the idea that these are 700,000 American citizens who should have the right to have representation in their national legislature. They just absolutely should.

Sean Rameswaram

You know, DC does have a representative in Congress. She just doesn’t get to vote on bills. Her name’s Eleanor Holmes Norton. Congresswoman, how long have you been fighting for DC statehood?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

I must say probably since I was a child. No, I’m a native Washingtonian, but I’ve been fighting for DC statehood ever since I entered the Congress almost 30 years ago, and I actually got a hearing on DC statehood then. But we are a lot closer to getting DC statehood now.

Sean Rameswaram

What else is in the bill? What will DC get once it gets this first round of statehood?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Well, the most important things it gets the two senators and a full voting House members. Actually, we get the same per capita in federal funds right now and in many ways I have the very same rights that every other member of Congress has. But the people I represent don’t, because they don’t have a final vote on legislation in the House of Representatives and they have nobody to vote for them in the Senate of the United States.

Sean Rameswaram

I’m sure you hear the arguments against statehood every day. One of the ones you hear most often is, “DC isn’t a state. It’s a city.” What’s your stock response to that one?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Well, the Constitution doesn’t say what a state looks like. For example, we have more residents than Vermont and Wyoming. We pay, we of the District of Columbia, pay more taxes per capita than any state in the Union right now, than those who live in New York or California or Florida or you name the state you would like. That alone ought to entitle us to statehood.

Sean Rameswaram

You mentioned the Constitution? What about the argument that DC becoming a state would just straight up be unconstitutional. That the, the Founders wanted the capital to be its own thing, not another chunk of land with federal representation with senators and congress members.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Well, the federal enclave would become your capital. It means it will be smaller but you’ll still have a capital.

Sean Rameswaram

You mean, like a little slice of the National Mall from the Capitol to the White House to the Lincoln Memorial, or what?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Thereabouts, yes.

Sean Rameswaram

OK. And then the rest of DC would be the 51st state.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

The private homes and businesses that surround the federal enclave would be Washington Douglas Commonwealth: Washington, DC.

Sean Rameswaram

Yeah. As in Frederick Douglass?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

As in Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass, by the way, was a great champion of equal rights for the District of Columbia. And that is very interesting when you consider that he’s known most for championing the end of slavery.

Sean Rameswaram

You know, I wonder if this House bill, HB-51, does indeed pass, and you know it’s sort of a landmark moment for this movement. It’s still going to most likely meet serious resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate, from the president. Do you think it will ever actually happen?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Of course it’s going to happen! Today, I’ve just come into the House. Hot sunny day. If the House were to pass a bill today saying it’s hot and sunny you couldn’t get that bill passed, the Senate. So I’m not anyways worried about the Senate for two reasons. When we get this bill to the House for the first time in 218 years we will be more than halfway there. Secondly, what makes you think the Republicans are going to keep control of the Senate in 2020? Are you dreaming?

Sean Rameswaram

You know I guess one of the fears Republicans have here is that if they were ever to approve statehood for DC they’d just be handing over you know to votes in the Senate that would forever be blue — that would forever be Democratic votes. Do you think if DC’s population were a little more politically diverse that Republicans might be more in favor of DC statehood?

It is certainly true that it has been controversial for every state to get into the union. It usually took two states coming in at the same times so that people were assured there would be some evenness Look, we understand we’re breaking the mold. We’re a city we’re trying to become a state. And a lot of parting of the waters will have to take place. We already see that beginning to happen.

Sean Rameswaram

You know I used to live here 10 years ago in DC, and obviously I live here again now. And I noticed one change. I mean, I noticed a few changes in the city between those intervening eight or nine years including look a lot more Whole Foods. But one other thing I noticed was the license plates went from saying you know “District of Columbia: Taxation Without Representation” to, now they say, “District of Columbia: End Taxation Without Representation.” Did you have anything to do with that decision?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

No, the district knows what to do. As we got closer and closer, the district understood that we need to speak directly to the millions of tourists who come into our city.

Sean Rameswaram

It kind of makes me laugh because now it’s sort of like even if you don’t want DC statehood, but if you live in DC, you have to drive around if you have a car with this political statement that maybe supports a cause that you don’t believe in. Do you ever meet people whom you represent in the Congress who don’t want statehood — people who live here in DC who don’t want statehood?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Have you ever met any Americans who wanted to pay taxes without representation? Who wanted to have only a House member who didn’t have a final vote on the House floor? Who wanted not to have two senators to go to? That person does not exist.

Sean Rameswaram

So you think it’d be impossible to find a single resident of the District of Columbia who isn’t in favor of statehood? Who doesn’t want statehood?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

If there is a resident who doesn’t want statehood, she could write to me. But I have yet to hear from that resident.

Sean Rameswaram

Interesting. And I guess because this has been an issue so close to you for 30 years now and long before that even. But 30 years at least in the Congress. I wonder, um, what do you think it would mean to you and to the rest of the District of Columbia, as it’s currently called, to finally achieve statehood?

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

It would have both practical and psychological consequences, frankly. Practical consequences, we’ve been talking about, you and I, but psychological consequences, too. Who wants to live in a country where you are treated less equally than any other resident of the country?

Sean Rameswaram

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives as a non-voting delegate, but she would love to change that.


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Author: Delia Paunescu

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