The D.C. flag being waved outside the U.S. Capitol
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For just the second time in the chamber’s history, the Senate is holding a hearing on legislation that would make D.C. the nation’s 51st state. The hearing comes as D.C. statehood has made tremendous gains, with the House passing legislation twice within the last year and the Biden administration fully backing the issue. 

The Senate has not held a hearing on the issue in nearly seven years, and nowadays statehood legislation has more support among senators than ever before. The subject of the hearing—S.51 or the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware—has the support of 46 senators. 

Still, there are four members of the Democratic caucus who have not stated their support: Angus King of Maine, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Two of those senators—Manchin and Sinema—also do not seem to support abolishing the filibuster, a practice that allows the minority to thwart legislation, thus standing in the way of statehood legislation. The two made their opinions known in recent op-eds ahead of a big vote on voting rights legislation

The senator really standing in the way of D.C. statehood is Manchin. Notably, Manchin tried to get provisions related to D.C. statehood—along with public financing of elections—removed as a condition of voting in favor of the For the People Act, according to Politico. And last month, Manchin told reporters in his home state that he does not support making D.C. the 51st state through legislation, preferring a constitutional amendment. “If Congress wants to make D.C. a state, it should propose a constitutional amendment. It should propose a constitutional amendment and let the people of America vote,” he said.

Manchin cited the 23rd Amendment as getting in the way of statehood legislation, which is a major talking point among Republicans. Ratified in 1961, the 23rd Amendment granted D.C. three electoral votes in the Electoral College and residents the right to vote in presidential elections. He basically said that Congress had the opportunity to pass statehood legislation then but didn’t. He also warned “his friends” that the matter would end up at the Supreme Court if Congress passed legislation. “Every legal scholar has told us that,” he said. “So why not do it in the right way and let the people see if they want to change?”

Recently, dozens of leading constitutional law experts made a compelling case that Manchin is wrong. They argue that statehood legislation deals with the problem Manchin refers to by repealing the provision of the law that awards D.C. electors. “The contention that a constitutional amendment is required to admit the Commonwealth is incorrect. The D.C. Admission Act calls for a proper exercise of Congress’ express authority under the Constitution to admit new states, a power that it has exercised 37 other times since the Constitution was adopted,” their letter says. “Every State admitted into the Union since the Constitution was adopted has been admitted by congressional action … no State has been admitted pursuant to a constitutional amendment.” They also say that courts are “unlikely to second-guess Congress’s exercise of its constitutional authority” to admit D.C. into the union since it’s a “paradigmatic political question.”

Those testifying in favor of D.C. statehood on Tuesday are reiterating the same points they often do, like the fact that the residents pay more federal taxes per capita than any other state in the union. (According to a new analysis from Gender Equity Policy Institute, the 2020 median federal income tax liability for D.C. residents will be $9,734 higher than any other state.) 

“D.C.’s current status is due to generations of inactivity by lawmakers, including the Founding Fathers themselves, failing to address the contradiction that residents of the U.S. capital are treated as second-class citizens,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in her opening testimony. 

Audience Growth and Engagement Editor Michelle Goldchain has been tweeting about the Senate hearing from City Paper’s official account, so follow along if you want a play-by-play. At the last House hearing on statehood, Republicans offered some pretty nonsensical arguments, like that D.C. doesn’t have a mining sector and therefore does not deserve equal representation. Already, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin argued D.C. is just an “elite group of people” with vested interest in federal power. (To this, Bowser said “it would be incorrect to say that D.C. residents have more of an interest in the federal government than other Americans.”) Let’s see what else opponents say. (Context: It wasn’t always this way—Republicans used to fight for representation for D.C. residents.)

Can’t get enough of statehood? Read City Paper’s coverage on the issue. 

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