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How Washington, D.C., could become a state — and why it probably won’t

The roughly 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C., have no voting representation in Congress -- yet pay more taxes per capita than anyone else in the U.S. On Friday, the House of Representatives voted for the first time ever to turn the nation’s capital into its 51st state. But D.C. statehood is not likely to happen soon, for reasons both constitutional and political. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than four million American citizens living in territories from Puerto Rico to Guam have no voting representation in Congress.

    But for the roughly 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C., who also have no vote, the House of Representatives voted today to make a change.

    Lisa Desjardins reports.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Welcome to a city flourishing, with one of the fastest growing populations in the country, awash in restaurants and arts.

    No one contributes to government more. Washingtonians pay the most taxes per capita in the U.S. , but almost no U.S. citizens have less say in government. As their license plates decry, residents of Washington, D.C., have no vote in Congress.

  • Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.:

    We alone deprive the citizens of our capital of the same rights that all others in the country enjoy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s delegate to Congress, cannot vote on bills. But she can author them, and she's proposed a statehood bill every year for nearly 30 years.

  • Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.:

    There being 232 votes in the affirmative, 180 votes in the negative.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, the House passed her Washington, D.C., Admission Act, the first time in history that either chamber has voted to make the city a state.

    The bill would name the new state Washington Douglass Commonwealth after former city resident and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Federal buildings, including the White House and Capitol, would remain a separate federal district, still called the District of Columbia.

    The city would gain two senators, one voting member of the House and control over its own decisions. Currently, Congress can overrule local officials.

    That's not theoretical. Earlier this month, District officials had little say as federal Park Police moved in on peaceful protesters, including in some blocks usually overseen by the city.

    It also affects pandemic response. In the CARES Act offering relief, Congress sent D.C. $750 million less than it gave to states.

  • Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton:

    The CARES Act is a quintessential example of what it means to not have the same rights as others in our own country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Holmes Norton points out, two current states, Vermont and Wyoming, have smaller populations than D.C., and have full representation in Congress.

    D.C. residents we spoke with feel the difference.

  • Kim McLeod:

    At any moment Congress can swoop in and make a decision on what I have decided as a local resident in this city is not important or legitimate, and can change those things.

  • Ryan Crowley:

    If I want to convey my opinion about legislation to a member of Congress, I can do that, but they can't really do — they can't take action on it. They can't vote for or against something.

    And it's frustrating. And it's almost like I feel like I'm just yelling

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But some opponents say, what's fair to D.C. residents isn't the issue. It's what's in the Constitution.

  • Roger Pilon:

    Well, when the District of Columbia was established 230 years ago by Congress, it was set up to be a unique entity, not to be part of any state.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Roger Pilon is a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute. Two of his arguments?

    First, the Constitution defines the city as a federal district. Pilon argues that only a constitutional amendment, not Congress, can make it a state. Then there's the 23rd Amendment, which gives the District electoral votes for president. But that would conflict with the electoral votes a new state would get separately.

  • Roger Pilon:

    In other words, for president, that 23rd Amendment would have to be repealed. And you can't do that through mere statute. You have to have a constitutional amendment to repeal a constitutional amendment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Holmes Norton concedes that amendment should be repealed, but says the city can become a state first, and that Congress can do it.

  • Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton:

    Now, it is true that the framers didn't quite know what to do with this capital city, and so it gave jurisdiction over to Congress. Well, the Congress is taking action now. It is taking action to make the District the 51st state.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Both acknowledge one towering obstacle to statehood: politics.

  • Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton:

    It's always partisan. And because the district is a largely Democratic city, you can expect Republicans and the president of the United States to be against it.

  • Roger Pilon:

    What we're talking about here is two new Democratic senators, and that is not something that the Republicans in the Senate want to see, since the Senate is so closely divided.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Which is why there is little hope the Republican-led Senate will pass the statehood bill this year and why the stakes for D.C. are high in November, when control of Congress, the White House, and the long-term chances for D.C. statehood, are on the ballot.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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