The Washington Post Editorial Board recently wrote that with two years left in his term President Obama “has time to make a difference with this [statehood] critical matter of civil rights.” Calling for President Obama to create a commission on DC voting rights however, is a far cry from what the District needs from the President. After trying every legislative trick in the book over the last 40 years to incrementally improve our status statehood still remains our ultimate goal. We don’t need a commission to tell us what we already know: statehood is the only permanent path to full equality in the American union, anything short of that is unequal status and thus unacceptable. What we need is not a commission, what we need is leadership and President Obama should step up provide it.
If Mr. Obama wants to make a contribution to the statehood cause, and I surely hope he does, here are four substantive and practical actions that he take to help the cause over the next two years. First, his administration’s silence on the statehood bill’s hearing on September 15th was so glaring that even Senator Coburn brought it up. The record for the hearing is open until September 30th and the President should require that Attorney General Holder, who recently voiced his opinion for full voting rights for the District, to submit testimony in favor of the statehood bill. The nation’s chief lawyer should weigh in on why the Administration views the bill as constitutionally sound and morally just.
Second, while the President’s political clout has waned over the last year and a half he still holds great sway with many in the Democratic Party. He should personally request that Democratic Senators and House members cosponsor the legislation before the end of this Congress (and in the 114th Congress) and urge Senator Carper to have a mark-up of the legislation in committee before the year ends or in the new Congress should the Democrats retain the majority in the Senate. The President should also press to have the bill be voted out of committee and then have Senator Reid have the full Senate act on this bill as he previously promised. This issue is a moral issue and the President should urge his party to lead and push it as far as they can before this Congress ends.
Third, in the New Year, the President should commit a portion of his state of the union speech to educating the American public about our status and articulating to them why statehood is the best path forward. The state of the union provides a unique opportunity to inform a nation about a problem that many of them don’t quite understand and it would show his commitment to remedying this injustice. There couldn’t be a better setting than to have a District of Columbia family sitting next to the First Lady in the Presidential Box and have the President look up and say:
“Sitting next to the First Lady is the X family, they are like every other family in America. They work hard, pay taxes, and try to be the best neighbors they can be but they are not like every other American. Unlike the citizens of the 50 states the citizens of the District of Columbia, all 646,000 of them (more than Vermont and Wyoming), are denied representation in Congress and have their locally raised budget manipulated by Congress. The story of the X family and their neighbors in the capital is an affront the principles upon which this country was founded and it is time that America remedies this situation and it is time for Congress to act to correct this injustice. The people of the District of Columbia fulfill all responsibilities of citizenship and they deserve the full rights of citizenship that only can come through statehood. The time to make a more perfect union is now and we all should support statehood for the people of DC.”
And finally, the while the President might be the leader of his party he is also the leader of the entire nation and should raise this issue across the country when meeting with and speaking to citizens in the 50 states. Statehood won’t become a reality during his Administration but he can push the cause forward like no one else before him thus setting the stage for statehood in the next Administration (hopefully). As the leader of the nation he has a moral obligation to make the case state by state that this system needs to change and that statehood is the answer. No President, since Nixon, has ever lifted a finger to bring about substantive improvements for the District and it’s time that President Obama take a stand for a cause that is right and that is just.
District citizens don’t need a commission to tell us what we want and deserve. What we need leadership and hopefully President Obama will join our movement as an active participant and leader. We have debated and attempted all other legislative options focused on improving the District’s status and statehood remains as the only option that grants us permanent equality. A commission would simply rehash old arguments and offer the failed compromises of the past. Our right to equal treatment should not be subject to compromise. The President has both an opportunity and responsibility to push this cause forward and I hope that he embraces it, we would welcome his support.