The first ever Senate hearing on the DC statehood bill, the New Columbia Admission Act (S. 132), was held on September 15, 2014, before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. No one in their right mind believed that this hearing would result in the bills passage this Congress but the hearing in and of itself was a step forward for the statehood cause. The hearing provided several positive outcomes that we must use and act upon as we continue to push, pressure, educate, and advocate for passage of this legislation in the short-term and the long-term.
Below is a rundown of positive lessons learned from the hearing:
- People Power: Over the last twenty years the statehood movement has been relatively quiet so to have an energized crowd that filled the hearing room, the overflow room, and spilled out into the hallways around the chamber was a great sign. It showed people both care about this cause and are excited to see progress on this issue. Statehood functions often have the same cast of characters show up but the hearing was packed with many many new faces for the statehood cause.
- A Good Friend: Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) introduced the statehood bill in 2013 after having very little public record of supporting this cause. In 2013, Senator Carper promised to hold a hearing on the bill and while he was a year late on the hearing it’s heartening to know that he keeps his promises and that he’s motivated to do the right thing. The statehood bill seems to be in good hands in the Senate under his leadership.
- It’s Constitutional!!!: Conservative constitutional scholar, Prof. Viet Dinh of Georgetown University, laid out a clear and concise case that 1) the courts would probably take a pass on reviewing the constitutionality of the bill; 2) should the courts take it up the bill would be deemed constitutional because Congress has vague yet broad authority under the Constitution to admit states; and 3) the New Columbia Admission Act’s path to statehood is similar to how Ohio was admitted as a state. Connecticut ceded land to the federal government for the Northwest Territory & Ohio was created out of that land which is similar to Maryland ceding land unconditionally for the creation of the federal district. So if Senator Portman (R-OH) has a problem with the constitutionality of DC statehood he needs to question the legitimacy of the office he holds and state he hails from. To have a conservative constitutional scholar make the case for DC statehood was an extremely positive development at the hearing.
- Moral Righteousness: District citizens need to embrace the fact that this is a moral issue. We must feel this cause in our hearts and our guts and push it forward. While we are thankful for Senator Carper offering this bill and moving it forward the only way it will ever pass Congress is if we organize and get more active. This is a moral cause, a cause of right vs. wrong and we must raise our voices louder and louder to push this cause forward. Even those who do not support statehood agree that taxation without representation is unfair and unjust, Senator Coburn even said so, but we must compel those who disagree with statehood now to embrace it in the future. The responsibility lies with us, the citizens of the District not with those whom we didn’t elect in Congress. We must embrace and own this as our cause and push it forward as a moral cause.
- Hollow Opposition: Senator Coburn and Dr. Roger Pilon served as the statehood opposition at the hearing and their testimony in many ways were fantastic because their arguments were so substantively empty and morally weak. Using the intent of the founding fathers as the backing for continuing to disenfranchise 646,000 citizens is laughable. We should never cede the moral high ground to those who created a nation that enslaved African-Americans and denied the right to vote to women. Our founders created a great structure for a democratic nation to be born but they left much to be desired with the actual details of democracy. If Senator Coburn and Dr. Pilon have the best arguments against statehood then we’re in good shape at least when a substantive (not partisan) debate is had on this issue.
- Growing Support: The announcement of the hearing itself helped to lead to more cosponsors on both the House and Senate statehood bills. While cosponsors in and of themselves do not mean that bills will pass it does allow activists in future Congresses to focus our energy on few members of both Houses. Having a public list of known supporters allows us concentrate our efforts on a smaller number of Representatives and Senators in the coming years. The hearing helped build the list of our base supporters.
It is also worth reading pieces by Clinton Yates and Robert McCartney for their takes on the hearing and lessons learned. It was not all positive as the low turnout by other committee members was quite telling in how much traction this bill presently has but at least we know know who we really need to work on.
The hearing was not an end or a beginning for the statehood cause but it was a sound step forward. It is now incumbent upon all of us to take all of the positives from this hearing and use them to build more support for this bill. The responsibility to make the hearing a big success lies with the citizens of the District who now need to keep the pressure on, build statehood advocacy groups across the city and across the country so that we continue to spread the word that this is an American cause and this is a moral cause with which we will ultimately prevail.