Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The U.S. House of Representatives will hold the first hearing on D.C. statehood in 26 years this Thursday. It’s the first in a series of steps needed to accomplish one goal: Pass H.R. 51, or the Washington, D.C. Admission Act.

H.R. 51, introduced by non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in January, makes D.C. the 51st state. The bill creates the 51st state from the District’s eight wards, giving more than 700,000 residents the same rights citizens living in the other 50 states already have, including two senators and at least one representative. Territories such as the U.S. Capitol, monuments, and the National Mall would remain under federal jurisdiction.

Beginning at 10 a.m. on Thursday, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will hear from six guests, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, D.C. resident and veteran Kerwin Miller, Congressional Research Service legislative attorney Kenneth Thomas, and Cato Institute Vice President for Legal Affairs Roger Pilon. Four of the six witnesses are in favor of statehood. Thomas and Pilon will likely speak to whether Congress has the constitutional authority to implement H.R.51, a topic both have testified about before; Thomas raised no red flags while Pilon has. (The ACLU conducted a legal analysis of H.R. 51 this summer and found the bill is “is a valid and defensible exercise of congressional authority.”) 

Several events intended to draw attention to the hearing will take place across the District over the next few days, and a commercial promoting statehood aired Sunday in D.C., Kentucky, and South Carolina. A statehood parade down Pennsylvania Avenue NW kicks off outside the Wilson Building at 11:30 a.m. on Monday. American flags adorned with 51 stars are already displayed along the route. On Tuesday, a pro-statehood mural will be unveiled on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, and on Wednesday, the 51 for 51 Coalition will hold a press conference in front of the Capitol. Howard University will also be driving students to the hearing Thursday morning. After the hearing, a march and rally supporting statehood and commemorating lives lost to gun violence will take place on the Mall.

A committee hearing is needed to pass any bill, including H. R. 51. Once it is marked up and passed in committee, the bill goes to the House floor for a full member vote. H.R. 51 has 219 co-sponsors, but two are non-voting members, Reps. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands and Michael San Nicolas of Guam. While that’s two members shy of a majority, statehood advocates are confident that enough House members will vote to pass the bill this legislative calendar. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed the bill without co-sponsoring it.

“Representative Holmes Norton has flat out said she guarantees passage of it, which leads me to believe she’s had conversations with some of her colleagues who aren’t willing to co-sponsor it but are going to be willing to vote for it,” says D.C. Vote Executive Director (and former Bowser campaign manager)Bo Shuff.

It’d be an unprecedented feat should the House pass H.R. 51. The last time statehood legislation went up for a vote in 1993, H.R.51 fell 153 to 277, with 105 Democrats joining 172 Republicans to kill the bill.

Advocates credit decades-long advocacy and education campaigns for why there’s more support for D.C. statehood than ever before. They also credit recent conversations around democracy reform.

“Since ’93, we have seen two different elections where the majority of the population didn’t end up agreeing with the majority of the electoral college. No matter how you come down on that issue, it makes you ask questions about our democracy,” Shuff tells City Desk.

Statehood advocates admit there’s no chance this bill becomes law this year, under a Republican-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump. But victories around D.C. enfranchisement are episodic. In 1964, residents voted for the president for the first time, thanks to the 23rd Amendment. In 1970, Congress passed legislation that gave D.C. the right to elect a non-voting delegate; and in 1973, to elect a Mayor, Council and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Residents didn’t elect an Attorney General until 2014.

“We are excited about the momentum around statehood in the House. Our goal is that the energy and momentum doesn’t die in the graveyard in the Senate,” says 51 for 51 campaign manager Stasha Rhodes.

That’s why the 51 for 51 Campaign is sending D.C. residents around the country to explain to 2020 presidential candidates what statehood means for them. They are asking candidates to support passing statehood legislation with just 51 Senate votes, temporarily abolishing a legislative procedure that requires most bills to pass with 60 votes. So far, the coalition has the support of 14 candidates, including one of the three frontrunners, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Former Vice President Joe Biden will not commit to supporting the idea, saying he needs to think about it. The campaign hasn’t yet spoken to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).  

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