Commentary

Virginians have a lot to gain from D.C. statehood

March 10, 2021 12:01 am

North Capitol Street is seen at dusk on Tuesday evening, March 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Image)

For years, I worked in the U.S. Capitol building as a political reporter and lived in its grand shadow on Capitol Hill. I interviewed lawmakers from around the country about issues facing their constituents, but I never talked to a voting member who represented my concerns in Congress. I paid my share of federal taxes and served jury duty, but I never got the opportunity to vote for a lawmaker who represented me.

I was then – and am now – a strong supporter of statehood for Washington, D.C., for the obvious reason that we won’t have a true democracy without it. The framers fought a war over taxation without representation, though of course representation was only for White male landowners. We’ve made significant advances in enfranchisement since then, but more than 700,000 U.S. citizens — a plurality of whom are Black — today have no real voice in their government. 

We still have taxation without representation in our supposed democracy — a galling fact the city pointedly makes on its standard-issue license plates. This — even though the district has more people than two other states, pays more in federal taxes than 22 states, and pays more per capita federal taxes than any state, according to 51 for 51, an advocacy group for D.C. statehood.

I moved across the river a few years ago, but I haven’t lost my passion to make the nation’s capital our 51st state. Indeed, as a close neighbor, we Virginians have a lot to gain. As Aaron Fritschner, a spokesman for Rep. Don Beyer, D-Alexandria, told me, “Our hand would be significantly strengthened.”

Stronger regional partnerships

To start, we’d have a strong partner in joint projects relating to transportation, infrastructure and other issues that fuel economic growth.  A spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine pointed to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, aka Metro, which carries thousands of Virginians to jobs, schools, and social and recreational activities within Virginia and across state lines. 

Barring a bailout from the federal government, Metro is proposing historic service cuts to account for pandemic-related revenue losses including closing several stations in Virginia. Two additional senators and a representative with full voting rights would certainly strengthen the cause for robust public transit throughout the region.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting congresswoman, is in a key position to boost regional transportation and infrastructure projects. A 30-year House veteran, Norton is a high-ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, chairs its subcommittee on highways and transit and sits on other subcommittees with jurisdiction over aviation, public buildings and economic development. We need her, as well as two supportive senators from D.C., to connect Virginia to the rest of the DMV and to other states in the North- and Southeast corridors.

A high-ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Norton sits on subcommittees with jurisdiction over government operations and civil rights — key issues in a state with tens of thousands of federal employees and a diverse population. And she’s a member of caucuses supporting national parks and the travel and tourism industries, also of keen interest to Virginia, home to major tourist destinations from the mountains to the beaches and historic landmarks in between. She and two senators from D.C. would certainly champion these issues as well.

The state’s conservation efforts also stand to benefit from D.C. statehood. Virginia is working with other states in the region to restore the Chesapeake Bay, an economic driver in the state and recreational resource for millions of Virginians. A vote in the U.S. House and two more votes in the U.S. Senate in support of the bay, as well as nearby farms, public lands, and waterways, would be huge; D.C. lawmakers could lend not only their voices but also their votes to the cause.

Norton has envisioned a regional federal-state partnership a la the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which is improving water quality, restoring habitats, reducing invasive species, and addressing other environmental problems in the Midwest. New York and New Jersey, meanwhile, have partnered to improve transportation across state lines. As 51 for 51 Campaign Director Stasha Rhodes noted, “These regional projects are only possible when you have the full force of each states’ joint congressional delegations. Residents across Maryland, Virginia and D.C. have similar needs — yet D.C. can’t throw in the same legislative weight, because we don’t have full legislative representation.” 

More support for progressive priorities

As one of the country’s most liberal cities, the district would undoubtedly send representatives to Congress who back priorities for many Virginians, including a ban on drilling offshore oil and gas drilling, which threatens to damage beachfront communities and local aquaculture; stronger support for efforts to curb climate change and rising sea levels; and efforts to protect federal workers, many of whom send state income taxes to Richmond.

Also of benefit: stronger protections for workers from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, a higher minimum wage, access to paid family and medical leave, more affordable health care, voting rights protections and other “small d” democratic reforms. 

This list goes on, so it’s no surprise that most members of our congressional delegation support statehood. Last summer, seven of our 11 House members voted for a historic bill that would carve out a small slice of the district for the Capitol and create a new state from the rest. 

Virginia’s four Republicans opposed the bill, and one — Rep. Morgan Griffith — sought to counteract the effort by introducing legislation that would give back, or “retrocede,” D.C. to Maryland. Republicans cast D.C. statehood as a Democratic power grab that would take away power from other states, but as an op-ed in one of the Mercury’s sister publications argues, those claims are “red herrings.” Griffith’s proposal, meanwhile, would deprive district citizens of their identity as Washingtonians and of ability to control their own laws and budget. As one D.C. advocate quipped years ago, “fat chance.”

Norton introduced the bill again on the second day of this Congress — and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is slated to hold a hearing on it this  month. Sens. Kaine and Mark Warner (D) have signed on to a companion measure in the upper chamber, but passage is uncertain without committed support from a majority of senators, much less 60 votes needed to override a near-certain filibuster.

Senate Democrats can change the rules to allow D.C. statehood to pass with simple majority support, just as Senate Republicans did when they controlled the chamber to allow confirmation of President Donald Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court. As 51 for 51 notes, “If 51 votes is enough to confirm a Supreme Court justice, it should be enough to make D.C. the 51st state.” 

D.C. residents deserve representation — and Virginians would benefit if they have it. Be a good neighbor, and do what you can to support it.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is an independent writer, editor, and communications strategist in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at www.allisonstevens.com.

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