Is the Two-Century Battle for D.C. Statehood Finally Near an End?Roundup
tags: DC Statehood
Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University, is the author of Hidden Laws: How State Constitutions Stabilize American Politics.
On Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on H.R. 51, a bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia. The measure has nearly unanimous Democratic co-sponsorship in the House and Senate. Given Democrats’ narrow chamber majorities, it could pass this session, provided Senate Democratic leadership convinces four holdout members to support the bill and can circumvent a Republican filibuster.
This combination of clear progress but high hurdles fits with the history of the centuries-long struggle for District home rule. As D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton testified, “My own family has lived through almost 200 years of change in D.C. since my great-grandfather Richard Holmes, as a slave, walked away from a plantation in Virginia and made his way to D.C. Today, it is my great honor to serve in the city where my family has lived without equal representation for almost two centuries.”
D.C. residents have gained rights in fits and starts, often running into both constitutional and congressional hurdles. In recent decades, members of Congress have raised new impediments, driven by partisanship tinged with racism.
H.R. 51 addresses a long-standing oversight in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution’s Enclave Clause empowers Congress to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the District of Columbia. While many think the Constitution explicitly excluded D.C. from congressional representation, D.C. residents initially elected special representatives to Maryland and Virginia’s congressional delegations. But in 1801, Federalists in Congress, reeling from significant losses in the 1800 election, passed the District of Columbia Organic Act, seizing control over the District, stacking D.C. courts with party allies and withdrawing District residents’ congressional representation.
The 1801 Act imposed an appointed mayor and council on Washington, and this governing structure remained in place until Reconstruction. After the Civil War, Republicans aimed to cement their power by aggressively converting Republican-leaning territories into states on party-line votes — it admitted the Nevada Territory in 1864 with only 21,000 residents. In 1871, Congress organized the Republican-leaning District into a territory with a governor, an elected bicameral legislature and a congressional delegate, pushing D.C. a step closer to statehood.
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