The federal government shutdown is having one collateral effect—it’s blowing a hole in the District’s latest effort to promote statehood for itself.
D.C. leaders aggressively emphasize that D.C. residents are ordinary American citizens, unfairly denied basic rights.
Yet local, national, and international coverage of the current federal shutdown emphasize just what a government town we are. Reports focus on furloughed federal workers, closed government agencies, closed government museums and parks, and empty Metro trains.
The BBC reported that “much of the pain is being felt in areas with large concentrations of federal workers, like Washington, D.C., where Moody’s Analytics estimates that one in six jobs are potentially affected.” The Washington Post reported that all the positive reporting recently from Amazon’s regional arrival is now offset by “a new burst of negative publicity about Washington that … is reviving the area’s bad reputation around the country and abroad.”
Texas Tech economics professor Benjamin Powell sneeringly welcomed the looming shutdown. “A shutdown would be a gift to most Americans. It would curtail wasteful government activities for a while, remind federal bureaucrats in Washington that they’re not entitled to their hefty paychecks…”
Even local leaders unwittingly add to the damage. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in appealing to President Donald Trump and Congress to reopen the federal government. In their Jan. 4 letter, the local leaders said the shutdown “not only causes financial hardship for individuals and families, but also deals a significant blow to our region’s economy.”
Statehood advocates acknowledge the image problem with the shutdown, but say it’s just one more hurdle to overcome.
“Statehood isn’t going to be gained in a moment, but in a movement,” says Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote. “We have to continuously educate America about what life is really like for 700,000 people who live here. Residents and leaders in D.C. can use the shutdown as a jumping off point to talk with friends and family across the country about how our lack of Statehood is compounded by a government shutdown.”
Statehood for the District is a long leap for many people, shutdown or not. Americans know little about local Washington—the people who actually live here.
A Tennessee couple visiting the National Mall a few years ago was astonished when an NBC4 reporter asked them about allowing voting rights for D.C. citizens. The father looked quizzically at the reporter and said, “but you work for us.” The tourist thought that everyone in D.C. worked for the federal government.
In Congress, the full House voted down statehood in 1993 and the Senate last held a committee hearing on D.C. statehood in 2014.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has gathered 155 Democratic signatures for her House Bill 51 statehood effort this session of Congress, also has gotten a promise from House leaders to hold a committee hearing and vote on statehood in the current session. “Now is the time to take action,” says Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that will handle the bill. “I will work closely with our leadership to move this legislation onto the House floor.”
Nothing is scheduled yet. And the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to take any action on statehood even if the House does. The last thing Senate Republicans want is two more reliably Democratic senators from D.C. Better it remain a government town, dysfunctional and denied democracy.
This post has been updated to reflect that the Senate held a committee hearing on D.C. statehood in 2014.