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It's Time to Give D.C. the True Autonomy and Self-Governance That Comes With Statehood

Our country must grant full and equal rights to the 712,000 residents of D.C. 

Residents of the District of Columbia rally for statehood near the U.S. Capitol on March 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on legislation that the House passed last Summer that would establish the District of Columbia as the 51st state. The District has a population of nearly 700,000 residents. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Residents of the District of Columbia rally for statehood near the U.S. Capitol on March 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on legislation that the House passed last Summer that would establish the District of Columbia as the 51st state. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a hearing on a bill to establish statehood for Washington, D.C. Since the last congressional hearing on statehood in September 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic, protests in D.C. after the killing of George Floyd, and the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol building have all highlighted how the lack of full statehood rights continues to cause serious harm to the health and safety of D.C. residents. These events underscore the urgency with which our country must grant full and equal rights to the 712,000 residents of D.C.

Historically, Congress has treated Washington, D.C. in the same manner as the states when it comes to federal financial assistance, such as federal grants, Medicare reimbursement, and funding for highways, education, and food assistance. However, when Congress passed a $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill in March of 2020, members of Congress opted to treat the District of Columbia as a territory, shortchanging D.C. residents a full $755 million in relief at a time when D.C. had more COVID-19 cases than 19 other states. During this critical public health crisis, D.C. was left at the mercy of Congress, a body in which its residents hold no voting representation, and Congress chose to withhold more than half of the aid it provided to every other state.

Events over the past year reinforce how D.C.’s lack of statehood continues to wreak havoc on the health, safety, and daily lives of its 712,000 residents. 

The $755 million was retroactively made whole in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, passed by Congress in March, more than a full year after passage of the first stimulus bill. The 712,000 residents of D.C. need test kits, hospital supplies, and emergency relief for businesses as much as every other American trying to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but without statehood, the residents of D.C. lack full representation in the representational democracy making key life or death decisions during a global health crisis.

Other recent examples show the harm caused by D.C.’s lack of full authority over its own National Guard and law enforcement due to lack of statehood. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, D.C. residents and others from around the region exercised their right to free speech and protested against police brutality. These demonstrators were met with brutal force by military personnel when the president used his uniquely exclusive control over the D.C. National Guard to deploy those troops to the area, in addition to scores of law enforcement officers.

On June 1, 2020, President Trump ordered those federal officers to forcefully clear peaceful protestors out of Lafayette Park and the surrounding streets in Washington, D.C., using batons, rubber bullets, and pepper spray — literally tear gassing civil rights protestors in front of the White House so he could take a photo in front of a church. Additionally, the president has the ability to take over D.C.’s own local police force for 48 hours, and that time period may be extended with mere notification to members of Congress who oversee District affairs — something President Trump threatened to do repeatedly in 2020.

Another striking example came on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob entered the U.S. Capitol during the tallying of Electoral College votes for the 2020 presidential election to overturn the results on behalf of Donald Trump. Unlike every state in the country, D.C. does not have the authority to deploy its own National Guard troops; instead, D.C. must rely on the Department of Defense, as the D.C. National Guard always remains under federal control. During the attack, approval for National Guard troops to stop the violent mob came after a lengthy delay by the Trump administration, long after the attack was underway and in a manner that put D.C. residents and everyone in the building in danger. Five people died in the course of the mob’s assault on the Capitol.

While restraint should be exercised in deploying National Guard troops, and uncertainties remain around the exact reasons for the delay, what is clear is that the delay in the use of the National Guard on Jan. 6 stands in stark contrast to the extensive and aggressive deployment of the D.C. National Guard on the streets of D.C. by the federal government during Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the summer of 2020.

In 1788, James Madison wrote that the inhabitants of the yet-to-be-chosen federal district should have a “voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.” More than 200 years later, residents of the District of Columbia still lack full representation in Congress. Events over the past year reinforce how D.C.’s lack of statehood continues to wreak havoc on the health, safety, and daily lives of its 712,000 residents. The continuing denial of representation for District residents is an overt act of voter suppression with roots in the Reconstruction era. It is beyond time to rectify this by giving D.C. the true autonomy and self-governance that comes with statehood.

You can read our full testimony here.

Monica Hopkins

Monica Hopkins

Monica Hopkins became the executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia in 2014. Previously, Monica served as the executive director of the ACLU of Idaho beginning in 2008. During her tenure there she oversaw sweeping statewide victories, particularly in the areas of criminal justice reform, LGBTQ equality, immigrants' rights, and upholding the First Amendment.

Kristen Lee

Kristen LeePolicy Analyst, ACLU

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