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Could DC Be Granted Statehood in Obama’s Second Term?
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton believes the time is right for the District to make moves toward independence. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published January 25, 2013
Photograph of Norton courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton believes the time has come for the District to make major changes toward independence.

“We have a new Obama here,” she tells Washingtonian. “I’m energized, and the President has a lot to do with that.”

Even without Obama’s support, this week four senators introduced a bill to grant the District full statehood. Norton matched them in the House. Though chances of statehood are slim to none, the legislation adds to momentum toward increased independence for DC that’s becoming far greater than it has been in decades.

Every year Holmes introduces legislation to give the District control of its budget, funded by local taxpayers; every year it fails to pass. This week she introduced it once again.

“This time,” says the veteran congresswoman, “it has the best chances of passing.”

Norton believes a host of legislation freeing DC from congressional control might be headed for passage, including laws that will:

  • Allow the District government to keep operating if the federal government shuts down.
  • Permit changes to the height of DC buildings.
  • Give the District budget autonomy.
  • Change the DC charter to further free the District laws from congressional review.

District officials celebrated when Barack Obama agreed last week to equip his limousine with DC license plates bearing the line “Taxation Without Representation,” a politically charged phrase that protests the District’s brand of limited independence. As a federal district, its representative has no vote on the House floor, and its laws and budgets must be approved by Congress. But its residents pay federal taxes.

“This was more than a ceremonial gesture,” she says. “It came with a very forceful statement.”

When press secretary Jay Carney was asked why the President had decided to use the plates, he said:

“President Obama now has lived in the District for four years and has seen firsthand how patently unfair it is for working families in DC to work hard, raise children, and pay taxes without having a vote in Congress.

“Attaching these plates to the presidential vehicles demonstrates the President’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, home rule, and budget autonomy for the district.”

Norton says she saw Obama’s renewed interest in DC matters last year when the President inserted language into his budget that would allow the District to keep functioning if the federal government is forced to shut down. Current law treats DC as if it were a government agency, and its funds would dry up.

“The President identified with us,” Norton says. “I’m certainly taking that as a signal we should go for it.”

When she goes to the House, Norton confronts a conservative Republican base that has had a tendency to insert language into laws that she believes infringe on Home Rule. One would have prevented women in the District from ability to have abortions; others would overrule the District’s gun control laws. She’s been able to fend off most of these efforts in the Senate.

Norton says the District has an ally in congressman Darryl Issa, a California Republican who chairs the committee that oversees District affairs. Issa supported DC budget autonomy last congressional session.

But the biggest change, in Norton’s mind, could come from Obama. No President since LBJ has had a passion for DC’s self-rule that translated into ground-breaking legislation. Granted, Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act in 1974, which granted DC its current brand of self-government, but President Johnson set the drive for independence in motion and made DC part of his crusade for civil rights.

Might Obama?

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  • concerned_DC_citizen

    President Obama began his inaugural address quoting the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," and reiterated that our journey is not complete until a long list of people share in this freedom and justice and have equal rights. However, in quoting the Declaration, he left out the critical phrase " that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The one group he did not mention were his 632,000 neighbors, the people of the District of Columbia, who have not consented to having 535 people elected by somebody else have absolute legislative power over them. For over two CENTURIES, they have been colonists of the rest of the nation and as such denied freedom, justice and equal rights and the fundamental right to govern themselves. If President Obama meant what he said in his inaugural address, I urge him to apply the same principles to the people of the District of Columbia and put admission of the State of New Columbia at the top of his legislative agenda. This longstanding and sordid stain upon American democracy needs to be erased so that no President will ever again find himself proclaiming the virtues of freedom in the one place in the United States where there is none.

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