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Mayor Bowser Delivers Georgetown Law’s 2019 Philip A. Hart Memorial Lecture: The Opening Argument for DC Statehood

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

(Washington, DC) – Today, Mayor Muriel Bowser delivered the 2019 Philip A. Hart Memorial Lecture at Georgetown Law Center, laying out her case for making Washington, DC the 51st state.

Below are the Mayor’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, Georgetown!  It is a pleasure to be with you today and to be a part of the Hart Lecture series. 

I am here today to make the case for DC statehood – to underscore the great injustice of disenfranchising more than 700,000 taxpaying Americans, and to shed light on the fact that the injustices don’t end there – that our lack of statehood has far-reaching consequences on the day-to-day lives of Washingtonians. 

The beginning of the fight for statehood dates back to 1801 – the year Congress first disenfranchised residents living in this area by creating the District of Columbia out of lands donated by Maryland and Virginia.

In fact, up until President Nixon signed the Home Rule Act in 1973, Washington, DC had no local government at all. Washington was no more than an agency of the federal government. No elected mayor, and no City Council.

The nation’s capital and its residents were governed by three presidentially-appointed commissioners. Our local laws and everything in-between – from street naming to trash pickup schedules – were passed by a congressional committee.

Today, though, things are different. Today, the facts are that we already operate as a state, while also performing the functions of a city and a county.

We operate a $16.5 billion budget, which just like every other state is mostly generated through local revenues. 

We are treated as a state in more than 500 federal laws.  

We are leaders in a region of 4 million people and growing. We operate our own school system, we manage our own SNAP and Medicaid programs and receive federal block grants that are typically awarded to states, such as workforce training grants, Community Development Block Grants for housing, Ryan White funding to combat HIV, and Violence Against Women Act grants.  

 Like states, DC’s Department of Motor Vehicles issues state driver’s licenses and state license plates. Our Department of Vital Records issues birth and death certificates. The Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking regulates banks and insurance companies within DC’s boundaries; DC HealthLink operates our state-based Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace; and DC’s Department of Energy and Environment enforces some of the toughest environmental regulations in the country.

We welcome these responsibilities, and support the bills introduced by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who I should note is a Professor Emerita of Law here at Georgetown, that would allow us to gain even more state responsibilities.

Among other things, the Congresswoman’s bills would give the DC mayor the authority to deploy our National Guard for local matters as well as the ability to grant clemency to offenders convicted under our local laws.

So the question that follows – If Washington, DC already functions as a de facto state, why are we seeking statehood? 

Some suggest that we may be a victim of our success at making do, as most Americans don’t even know that we aren’t just like them.

But instead of asking “why statehood?” I urge your consideration of a series of questions:

  1. Should the residents of the District of Columbia enjoy all the rights and privileges embodied in the Constitution?
  1. Is the current framework of limited Home Rule unfair and unjust?
  1. Could we do more to protect our public safety if DC were a state?
  1. Does the denial of DC statehood harm the entire region?
  1. Can Congress grant DC statehood to provide our more than 700,000 residents full representation in Congress?

The compelling answer to all of these questions is one simple: yes.

Washington, DC takes on the responsibilities of a statehood without enjoying all the rights and privileges of the U.S. Constitution.

Frequently and historically this has been referred to as taxation without representation.   

As the pending lawsuit brought by DC Appleseed on behalf of DC residents asserts, “The denial of [the right to full voting representation] violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection, due process and the constitutional right of association.”

We are talking about the denial of our fundamental rights as American citizens; a denial of rights that causes political and economic harm to the more than 700,000 Americans living here in DC who do not have a single vote in the House and no representation at all in the Senate. No say as to how our tax dollars are spent or who sits on the Supreme Court or whether to send our servicemembers to war.

 To add insult to injury: Congress can overturn our local laws, block local funding, and could even abolish the District’s local government tomorrow.  

 And I want to be clear: Congress exercises this ability to interfere in local laws regularly, especially on social issues. Annually, without fail, a member of Congress will introduce a bill to overturn gun control laws in DC. We are also forced to fend off Congressional efforts to interfere with family matters, such as reproductive rights for DC residents, and small matters, such as the labeling of “wet wipes.”

A single member of Congress can superimpose his or her judgement to overturn the decision of DC voters.

In an interview, former Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who took quite an interest in meddling with local DC affairs as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was asked about how his support for states’ rights seemed to conflict with his desire to unilaterally overturn the will of DC voters.

His response: “Well, Washington, DC is not a state. So, states’ rights yes, but Washington, DC is not a state.”

And the absence of voting representation in Congress is not the only harm caused by our lack of statehood.

As I mentioned earlier, DC’s lack of statehood has far-reaching consequences on the day-to-day lives of our residents – in ways that you don’t necessarily notice until you live here, you vote here, and you start to see the disconnect between what we know to be the values of our city and the way that those values play out in our systems and laws.  

I would argue that the lack of statehood affects DC residents in your chosen field: the administration of justice.  

As you probably know, currently, almost all of DC’s local crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, a federal official who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and the only U.S. Attorney to prosecute local crimes under local laws. Our elected Attorney General does not prosecute beyond misdemeanors. 

The U.S. Attorney is wholly unaccountable to DC residents, and there is no requirement that he or she reside in DC. This can inherently create a disconnect between the community and the theories of prosecution by the U.S. Attorney. 

Recently, for example, we have experienced a spike in hate crimes – or at least in the number of hate crimes being reported, but the U.S. Attorney’s office has been reluctant to pursue prosecution. This is wrong and not in line with our DC values. 

Another example is that the operations of local courts are run by the federal government.  

As future lawyers yourselves, if you wanted to serve as a judge on the DC Superior Court, you must be recommended to the President of the United States for nomination by a selection committee, and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate, where DC voters have no representation. 

This process has created tremendous strains on our justice system, and we currently have a backlog of judges awaiting confirmation in the Senate. 

The DC Superior Court currently has five vacancies. This is after the Senate recently confirmed four judges just one month ago, two years after the vacancies were created and the numerous meetings with White House and Senate staff.

When it comes to confronting gun violence in the city, we have had to get creative in forming partnerships with all of our federal partners, and our neighbors in Northern Virginia. 

Additionally, our returning citizens serve their parole and probation under a federal agency – and our offenders are sent to prisons all around the nation.

I have been proud to partner with Georgetown University in supporting our returning citizens through the Paralegal Fellowship Program as well as the Pivot Program; but with statehood, DC could do even more to provide returning citizens with meaningful second chances.

One criminal justice matter that is particularly personal to me is clemency. As the District’s Mayor/Governor, I do not have the authority to grant pardons to DC residents who have committed local crimes. That authority belongs solely to the President of the United States. 

And the disconnect goes beyond the court system itself. We see this right now in our attempts at marijuana reform – an issue that states across the nation have been tackling in their attempts to build fairer and more equitable systems of justice. 

Right now, DC residents face a rather absurd predicament – adults can possess and use marijuana, but we have no legal way to procure it outside of medical purposes. 

We already know that for far too long, the possession of marijuana has been a pipeline to prison, especially for black men. This unique predicament exacerbates the problem in DC.

 So earlier this year, I introduced the Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019 to establish a legal sales and tax regime, which has the support of DC residents and members of the Council.  

However, the locally elected officials on the DC Council cannot vote on this piece of legislation because of a Congressionally imposed a rider making it illegal to do so – even though some of these members have a similar regime in their home states.

 As such, we are stuck in a position where DC knows the right thing to do, but we legally can’t get it done.

 Again, though, you might not realize this was happening if you don’t live in DC and you aren’t affected by this patchwork of systems.  

 In fact, I am confident that most of you here today have heard many more arguments against statehood than for it.

But I will tell you right now that in all my years living and governing in DC, I have yet to hear a valid argument against statehood.  

 I have heard that DC statehood is unconstitutional. So, let’s consider the law – we are confident that our strategy is constitutional according to Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, which sets a maximum size of 10 square miles for the federal district, but not a minimum size.

And you don’t have to take my word for it – experts from the Congressional Research Service and Georgetown Law professor Viet Dinh, a former Assistant Attorney General of the United States under President Bush, not only agree – they have testified to that effect.

I have heard that DC is too small to become a state, even though there are no geographic restraints on statehood. But, according to the latest Census data, Washington, DC’s population of 702,000 is more than that of two states, Vermont and Wyoming. So, if we are too small to be a state, does that also mean that Vermont and Wyoming have too few people to be a state? Of course not, because that isn’t a standard for statehood.

But it’s not just about DC – it's about our entire region. Consider this: Should you be willing to stretch your imaginations and consider the idea that the senators of our neighboring states also represent DC, then that means that the residents of DC, Maryland, and Virginia currently have one senator per 3.8 million people.

In contrast, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have one senator per 500,000 people.

That’s 3.8 million people versus 500,000 people. When regional issues arise in Congress, these data points matter.

 I have also heard the argument that DC cannot afford to be a state – that it’s just a ward of the federal government. That could not be further from the truth. Our residents pay federal taxes – more per capita than any state and more total federal taxes than 12 states. In fact, we are a donor state, meaning DC gives more in federal tax dollars than we receive. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of states.  

I have heard that DC should “just go back to Maryland” and that Maryland voters should be the ones to decide whether DC should be permanently partitioned from their state.

As Professor Dinh has raised, however, that decision is for DC residents alone. Under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, commonly referred to as the Admission Clause: “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.”

DC voters have already said loud and clear that we do not want retrocession, we want statehood.

Finally, I have heard the real reason against DC Statehood: We’re too brown and too democratic. Former Governor John Kasich admitted some of this during his presidential bid when he said, “What it really gets down to, if you want to be honest, is because [Republicans] know that’s just more votes in the Democratic party.” 

 But our rights are not a republican or democratic issue; they are by definition an American issue.  

This fundamental truth was recognized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he marched in a local rally with our residents in 1965 and sent a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson urging him to support democracy for DC residents. 

 This was recognized by Republican President Richard Nixon when he signed the Home Rule Act, which first granted a semblance of local governance to DC residents. 

This was recognized in 2007 by current Vice President Mike Pence and former Speaker Paul Ryan, then serving as members of the House, when they voted for the bill to give DC a vote in the House of Representatives. 

This was recognized by 86% of DC voters in November 2016 when we approved a referendum to make Washington, DC the 51st state.  

And, this has been recognized by the 215 voting Members of the House of Representatives who cosponsor H.R. 51, the Washington, DC Admission Act in the current session. 

H.R. 51 would carve out the federal enclave of Washington that we associate with the functions of the nation’s capital – the Capitol, the Mall, the White House, and other core federal buildings – and make that the new nation’s capital. The surrounding neighborhoods that comprise local DC would become the 51st state. 

The footprint of the nation’s capital will not change – it only cedes neighborhoods and local government to a new state. The same thing was done when the land comprising Arlington and Alexandria, which was originally part of Washington, DC, was retroceded back to Virginia. 

In admitting new states, Congress considers several factors, including economic sustainability, a commitment to the republic, consent of residents, and the definition of boundaries.

Washington, DC has met or exceeded all criteria and the House has recognized this by scheduling a hearing on September 19 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform – the first House hearing on statehood since 1993. 

We go into this historic hearing with broad national support. Every single Democrat running for president has endorsed statehood. We also have the support of over 100 organizations including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP, ACLU, March for Our Lives, and the National Urban League.  

We also go into this hearing knowing that when our fellow Americans see us and when they know the full story of local Washington, DC, the real DC, not the federal district - they support us.  

So our plan is to use the upcoming hearing to speak directly to the American people. 

 In the past, granting self-government and voting representation to DC residents has garnered bipartisan support. There’s no doubt that statehood is a political question – but ultimately it comes down to this, Congress is empowered by the Constitution to resolve political questions, so, I leave you with this question: 

 Does Congress truly believe that the promise of democracy extends to all Americans citizens as outlined in the U.S. Constitution - and will they act accordingly?

I thank you again for having me here, and I look forward to a spirited discussion about the next steps for statehood.