Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has announced a plan to allow local residents to vote in November on whether the nation’s capital should try to become the country’s 51st state.
Speaking at a breakfast Friday to commemorate the end of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862, Bowser said the ballot initiative would “send a bold message to the Congress and the rest of the country that we demand not only a vote in the House of Representatives. We demand two senators — the full rights of citizenship in this great nation.”
The district is now represented in Congress only by a single, nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives; the current officeholder is Eleanor Holmes Norton. Territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have similar representation in Congress, but their residents do not pay federal income taxes, as D.C. residents do.
The situation has given rise to use of the "Taxation without representation" slogan that is embossed on city vehicle license plates — including the limousine of President Barack Obama.
District residents would most likely approve the ballot initiative Bowser is seeking. A Washington Post poll from November showed that about 70 percent of district residents support statehood, and the idea has also has received some high-profile support from both sides of the political aisle.
Obama has publicly expressed support for statehood, and front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in August that he favored “whatever’s best” for D.C. residents, including statehood.
No power to change
But despite the idea's popularity among residents and political figures, the initiative would carry no legal power to change D.C.’s status. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to admit new states into the union. The Constitution also expressly establishes the district as the seat of government and gives Congress exclusive power over it.
That means the D.C. ballot initiative appears to be largely an exercise in gauging district residents’ support for the idea; it cannot force Congress to consider statehood.
A spokesman for Bowser did not return several requests for comment about the initiative.
“The effort to become the 51st state must be fertilized on a continuing basis to have a fair chance of succeeding,” Norton said in a statement. “The effort should be judged not by whether it achieves statehood, but whether it brings much-needed energy to our push to become the 51st state.”
Norton has introduced legislation in the House several times that would transform D.C. into a state called New Columbia, most recently in January 2015. That bill has been languishing in the House Rules Committee since it was introduced.
The call for statehood may further inflame tensions between Democrat Bowser’s municipal government and the Republican-controlled Congress that has final say over all laws passed in D.C.
Bowser is already battling with Congress over the city’s budget, which, for the first time this year, will be enacted without going through the congressional appropriations process.
In March, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the district doesn’t have to wait for congressional approval to start spending local dollars. Prior to the ruling, the city had to wait for approval before it could spend its money.