Proponents of statehood for Washington, D.C., passed a milestone in their decades-long movement to reshape the American political map. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to make the nation’s capital the 51st state. Now the bill heads to the Senate—where the real fight awaits.
D.C. has long chafed under its relationship with Congress. Lawmakers there have the power to veto or alter local laws. Its population is larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont. Its residents pay federal taxes, vote for president, and serve in the armed forces. Yet they have no voting representation in Congress.
The House voted 216-208 to create the new state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. The state would have one representative and two senators. A tiny sliver of land including the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall would remain as a federal district.
For lifelong statehood advocates like Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s long-serving and nonvoting delegate in the House, the vote is a culmination of a life’s work.
“My service in the Congress has been dedicated to achieving equality for the people I represent, which only statehood can provide,” Norton says. “My life as a third-generation Washingtonian has marched toward this milestone.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore a “D.C. 51” face mask at a news conference before the vote. She called Norton the “patron saint of D.C. statehood” and predicted the vote would “reaffirm the truth that all deserve a voice in our democracy.”
The measure has received strong support from President Joe Biden’s White House, which released a statement calling Washington’s current status “an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded.”
The White House praised Washington as worthy of statehood, with “a robust economy, a rich culture, and a diverse population of Americans from all walks of life who are entitled to full and equal participation in our democracy.”
The proposal faces a tough road to passage in the Senate, where even full Democratic support isn’t guaranteed. It is certain to face strong Republican opposition, given that the proposed 51st state would be overwhelmingly Democratic. Another statehood bill passed the House in 2020, but it quickly died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
A major opposition point is the idea that Congress does not have the authority to change D.C.’s status. Pro-statehood advocates say every state other than the original 13 entered the union via congressional vote. But opponents argue that D.C. is a special case that requires special steps.
Zack Smith, a legal fellow at a conservative think tank, argues that D.C.’s creation and limitations are enshrined in Article I of the Constitution. He says its status can only be changed through a constitutional amendment. He believes D.C. shouldn’t be a state at all and that the Founding Fathers “intended this to be a federal district outside the jurisdiction of any one state.”
If the statehood measure becomes law, Smith predicts a wave of lawsuits. “You’re basically looking at a lot of litigation,” Smith says. “Every legislative act of this new state would be called into question.”
Political scientist Ravi Perry says the events of 2020 were a turning point for the view of the D.C. statehood push. The issue became meshed with the country’s rising racial justice movement. As recently as 2018, nationwide polls showed the majority of Americans to be lukewarm at best on the topic. But those poll numbers changed dramatically in the past two years.
What do you think about whether Washington, D.C., should be America’s 51st state?
(Eleanor Holmes-Norton, center, joined from left by Senator Tom Carper and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaks at a news conference ahead of the House vote on H.R. 51—the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)