The last, and only, time Congress took a vote on DC statehood was 1993. Similar to the bill now, no one expected it to pass, despite the fact that President Clinton had voiced support for it and Democrats controlled both houses. But even though a majority of Democrats (and one Republican) supported it, more than 100 Democrats voted against it.
Opposition was varied, with some similarities and differences with today. Opponents argued then, as they do now, that statehood is unconstitutional.
Others argued that the new state would not be able to support itself without federal assistance, an argument that DC's balanced budget and full coffers makes less relevant today, even with the nearly $600 million in federal aid the District gets. "Should we be granted long overdue statehood, the District will be prepared to take on any responsibilities and mandates associated with being a state," Mayor Vincent Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy recently stated.
Another argument against statehood came from members like Rep. Tom Delay R-TX, who argued that DC was too mismanaged, "The District hasn't even shown the ability to govern itself as a city, let alone as a state" and added "The District is a liberal bastion of corruption and crime. Let's take it back and clean it up" and while DC's recent corruption issues have not helped, DC is a long way from the days when the control board took over.
Others were concerned that the District was too small, geographically and economically, to make it as a state and a few Republicans were openly worried that DC statehood would only add more Democrats to the House and Senate.
Among Democrats, most of the opposition was of two types. There were Congresspersons from Virginia and Maryland who voted against the bill out of concern that DC would institute a commuter tax, "They would take hundreds of millions of dollars from suburbanites to help the state of New Columbia," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., D-VA. And then there were Democrats from the south, the same group that had opposed home rule in 1973, some of whom, like Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, have since become Republicans.
What if the DC Statehood bill had passed? How would things have been different with New Columbia?
In addition to New Columbia's right to full home rule and the end of Congressional interference in local affairs, the other major difference would have manifested itself, as Republicans feared, in the Senate.
One more Democratic representative would have never changed control of the House from Republican to Democrat and likely would have had little impact elsewhere, and though the Electoral College would have lost one member, that wouldn't have changed the outcome; but in the Senate, adding two, almost surely Democratic seats would have swung the body to the Democrats for one period and changed the outcome on votes on many others.
During Bush's first term, Republicans controlled the Senate from the end of January 2001 to the beginning of June in 2001. With 2 Democratic Senators From New Columbia, Democrats would have controlled the Senate during that time, and that's the time when the first Bush tax cuts passed, which would have significantly strengthened their hand during those negotiations.
Furthermore, throughout Bush's presidency, Vice-President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote on 8 occasions, but with New Columbia's Senators those would have surely not been ties. These votes were not trivial issues either
- 2001 Cheney voted to approve the 2001 Budget, thwarting Democratic plans to Double the Prescription Drug Benefit
- 2001 Cheney voted to increase the 2001 Bush Tax Cut by $69 Billion
- 2002 Cheney voted against a worker benefit amendment to provide low interest loans to help trade-displaced workers with their mortgages.
- 2003 Cheney voted for the 2003 Budget that allowed for $550 Billion in tax cuts
- 2003 Cheney voted for an amendment to the 2003 Bush Tax cut that increased the tax cut on dividends and decreased the "Marriage Penalty" tax cut
- 2003 Cheney voted to approve the 2003 Bush Tax Cut
- 2005 Cheney voted for the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which cut the deficit by $40 Billion through reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and food stamps programs
- 2008 Cheney voted to reduce the AMT without offsetting the loss in tax revenue. (This amendment didn't become law)
Two additional Democratic votes would have even helped during the super-majority period. Concessions made to gain the individual votes of conservative Democrats to break the filibuster for the Affordable Care Act would not have been needed. The public option, for example, was dropped in order to get the vote of Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, and concessions on abortion funding and what was later known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" were made to get the vote of Ben Nelson. With Senators from New Columbia, one of these deals would not have been needed.
Opposition has been partisan, and so has support, but Democrats need to unite in seeing it that way
Not since the 23rd Amendment was passed in the early 1960's and the DC Home Rule Act passed in 1973 have Republicans shown much support for DC voting rights or home rule, and in most cases they've shown outright opposition. Only Democrats, lukewarm though it may have been at times, have been moved by the cause.
In the last three periods during which Democrats have had full control of the legislative process (House, Senate and Presidency) some sort of DC voting rights legislation has been seriously considered or passed.
In 1978, the DC Voting Rights Amendment was passed by the Democratic House and Senate . But it was only ratified by 16 states before it expired in 1985.
The next opportunity came in 1993-95 when the Statehood vote failed. By that time DC had held a constitutional convention (in 1982), passed a state constitution and chosen the name New Columbia for the proposed state.
The most recent opportunity came in 2009-2011, and this time voting rights proponents were focused on the DC Voting Rights Act. The DC Voting Rights Act would have given DC one representative in the House. After failing three times in Republican-controlled Houses, it first passed in 2007, when Democrats were in control. But it failed in the Senate, despite support from a majority of members, because it could not overcome a Republican filibuster. Finally in 2009, with Democrats again in control, the bill passed in the Senate. Republican Senator John Ensign, however, had successfully attached an amendment that would have gutted DC's gun laws and removing that amendment proved impossible, so it was never submitted to the House.
Eleanor Holmes Norton has said that one thing preventing DC Statehood is that it is "not a national issue," but the chance that New Columbia would have been able to preserve the public option, stop the Bush tax cuts and/or prevent cuts to Medicare makes it very much a national issue.
There are all kinds of moral reasons to support DC voting rights. It is a civil rights issue and those who oppose it are on the wrong side of history. There's even a practical reason to support it, namely that DC Statehood, and the end of the 23rd Amendment, would reduce the chance of a tie-vote for President by changing the number of electoral college votes from an even number to an odd one. But so far those non-partisan reasons have been crushed under the foot of partisan politics by Republicans. Perhaps it's time for advocates to use partisan politics to its advantage.
DC Statehood is good for America and the right thing to do, but it also means that Democrats control the Senate more often. It means Democrats get an extra half seat in the House. DC Statehood means that Democrats pass more of the laws they want, and stop more of the laws they oppose. That's why every Democrat should support DC Statehood.
The upcoming midterms are turning into a battle for control of the Senate, and one would have to suspect that right now Democrats were wishing that they had two DC Senators seated among them. If they should lose control of the Senate, DC voting rights advocates should remind them of the chances they've already squandered and prepare them to vote for DC Statehood the next time they get the chance.
**For those concerned with a Commuter Tax, the solution is simple. DC could earn about $1.2 B from a commuter tax. Currently the federal government pays for DC's criminal justice system at the cost of about $600M. Simply add a line to the DC Statehood law that ends this relationship if DC enacts a commuter tax and then sends the savings to Maryland and Virginia in proportion to their lost tax revenue from a commuter tax. Or increase DC's payment by $600M to make them whole.
***DC Statehood would change the Electoral College from 538 members to 537. In some years, when the state that lost a seat in the House to give one to DC is "Blue" that would hurt Democrats by changing a tie to a loss, in other years it would hurt Republicans when that state is "Red." This is random and it's likely a 50-50 proposition. And it's unclear how a tie would play out. So it's possible that DC Statehood will change the outcome of future presidential elections, but to whose advantage it's impossible to say. It's a coin toss.