The night before President Trump’s “Save America” rally on the Washington Mall, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wanted to deploy National Guard forces to shore up security in preparation for protests. Normally, a request like that from a major U.S. city would go to the governor of the state. But Washington, D.C., is not a state. In fact, its National Guard is the only force in 50 states and four territories that reports directly to the president.
So instead, Bowser’s request went to the Pentagon, which approved the request, but with a caveat: Guardsmen would not carry ammunition and riot gear, or interact with the pro-Trump extremists. As the mob descended on the Capitol, terrified lawmakers and staff crouched under tables. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, frantically dialed Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but the governor’s hands were also tied. When Capitol Police, which is overseen by Congress, phoned the Pentagon for backup, that request was reportedly denied. In the meantime, the unit was savaged with public criticism as a shocked nation watched the Capitol Police were easily overwhelmed and failed to make mass arrests as the mob surged forward.
In all, it took about three hours for guardsmen to arrive and help secure the building.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday about the events, Bowser, who was born and raised in the district, did not mince words: D.C. needs to become a state. Now.
“First, we must get statehood on the President’s desk within the first 100 days of the 117th Congress,” Bowser said. And Congress should transfer command and control of the D.C. National Guard to the district.
If she gets her way, it would not necessarily translate to a more aggressive role for the Guard. In June 2020, when Trump activated guardsmen and other forces to patrol the streets during Black Lives Matter protests near the White House, Bowser reacted swiftly, calling on Trump to remove the patrolling forces and notifying him that the city would not pay the hotel bill for guardsmen deployed to the district against its wishes.
D.C. has been calling for statehood since 1801. But the city’s strong Democratic identity—since residents gained the right to vote for president in 1964, the popular vote has gone to the Democratic candidate every time has made that politically difficult. Sen. Mitch McConnell has criticized the effort to make “the swamp itself, Washington, D.C., America’s 51st state.” Sen. Lindsey Graham has called D.C. statehood a “brazen power grab” for Democrats.
With the addition of Georgia’s Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats, to Congress, the U.S. Senate will now be split 50/50, with 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats and—as of Jan. 20—Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the deciding vote. D.C. statehood would add two additional U.S. Senators, and with it a huge Democratic advantage.
For Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s only non-voting member of the House, statehood is now “in sight.”
“We have upped the ante, I think, with what happened here in the Capitol,” she told Insider on Friday.
“The notion that the house in our own city—the city that happens to be the capital—and that city has no representation, no complete representation, at a time of crisis, points up the need for the District of Columbia to become a state and have the same tools that every other state has,” Norton said.
“Taxation without representation” adorns every D.C. license plate, but the issue has largely been seen as a local one—until recent years.
The history of D.C.’s disenfranchisement is older than the nation’s capital itself. When the city was chosen as the seat of the U.S. government in 1788, the politician Thomas Tredwell raised the issue of its lack of representation, but the concern largely fell on deaf ears. For centuries, Washingtonians have not had a say at the national level—whether the U.S. can go to war or allocate Covid-19 relief funding or take action on climate change.
Advocates of statehood argue that it’s unfair to reduce the issue to its impact on national politics, and that Washingtonians just want to have a role in their country’s future.
In addition to Holmes Norton, D.C. has two “shadow Senators,” though none of them have voting power. Even local laws can be limited by Congress. On issues ranging from abortion to medical marijuana to efforts to stop the spread of HIV, federal lawmakers have exercised that power to approve or halt the city’s democratically approved bills. And when states received $1.25 billion each for Covid-19 relief, D.C. received only $500 million, despite being one of the hardest-hit spots in the country. All this, despite the fact that D.C.’s population of 705,000 people is larger than two states and on par with about a dozen others, and residents pay more in federal taxes per capita than anywhere else in the country.
Most Americans, Holmes Norton said, are unaware that Washingtonians largely have no say in the nation’s laws. Now, the effort is gaining momentum on a national stage.
In June 2020, for the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to grant D.C. statehood. The bill didn’t make it through the Senate, where majority leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as “full-bore socialism.” In response, Republican lawmakers introduced three different bills that would make D.C. part of Maryland—despite it being unpopular in both places—or cap the number of Senators at 100, preventing any new states from having representation in the Senate. (Those bills went nowhere.)
Rep. Holmes Norton said she would reintroduce the Washington, D.C. Admission Act into the new session of the House. Already, she told Insider, it has received more co-sponsors than it did last year, even before Congress reopened this week. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has vowed support, saying in a statement: “The sacred right to vote and to have a voice in our government is a core pillar of our freedom.”
“We really are sick and tired of Congress interfering,” Elinor Hart, an organizer at the DC Statehood Coalition, told Insider. “We really need to get control over our own laws and our own budget.”
The hurdle, still, is the Senate. And it’s not just Republicans. Last year, three Democrats—Doug Jones, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—and Independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, did not sponsor the legislation. (Jones lost his reelection bid to a Republican challenger.)
As for Manchin, in November 2020, he said he didn’t “see the need” for D.C. statehood. “I’d have to hear more [about] that, but right now I’m not convinced that’s the way to go,” he said. But in an email to Insider on Thursday, Manchin didn’t repeat that stance. Instead, he said he was “focused on healing our country,” and he would “review all other proposals to heal our nation when the time comes.”
In the meantime, D.C.’s nonvoting congresspeople are working to see if they can secure Republican support for the bill, or find a way to modify Senate rules so that statehood could be included in budget reconciliation—which would save them from requiring the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“Now that we have control of both houses, we’re having to reconfigure how you would go about doing that,” Holmes Norton said. “And we’ll have word on that at some time later in the session.”
Typically, statehood has been a polarizing issue that falls along partisan lines. In the past, Holmes Norton said, two states are often added at once—a Democratic state and Republican state—to maintain Congressional balance. But in this case, that may not be possible. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with Republican leadership, has been floated as an option. But, Holmes Norton says, “Puerto Rico is bankrupt. So it isn’t a viable partner.”
“We’re going to have to do this a new way,” Holmes Norton said. “And we are in the process of trying to figure that out.”
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