D.C. could be on its way to becoming a state. Here's what you should know

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This Friday, Congress will once again vote on the issue of D.C. statehood. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that he would call members of the House of Representatives to vote on H.R.51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, named for its legislative goal: to make the District the country's 51st state.

The legislation will likely pass through the House without any hiccups, given that a majority of Democratic representatives are already in favor of making D.C. a state. It will be more difficult to pass the legislation in the GOP-controlled Senate, however, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has compared statehood to "full-bore socialism."

Despite these strong words, proponents see statehood not as socialism, but rather as the only way to combat the legislative muzzle that's been placed on the District of Columbia. The capital's 700,000 residents do not have any voting member in the House or Senate; these are taxpayers who have no say in policy. Furthermore, the District is a historically Black municipality, and currently half of its residents are Black, so denying statehood is in effect a form of disenfranchising Black voters.

The Washington Bureau of the NAACP wrote an open letter last year to members of the House, encouraging them to vote for D.C. statehood. "Residents of D.C. are not being fairly represented by the federal government. Congress consistently interferes with D.C. laws; dictating what the city can and cannot do and how it may spend its own money. Congress has the ability to act in direct opposition to D.C. residents without giving these Americans a voting voice in the process." The organization added: "These hard-working Americans are paying money to and dying for a government in which they have no voice."

"I think it should be understood for what it is: a strictly political issue."

As it stands, D.C. has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming, and pays more in federal taxes than 22 other states. Despite this, while the District receives about 25% of its funding from federal coffers, it has effectively no say in how its own tax dollars are spent by Congress. Its budget is also approved by federal lawmakers, which kneecaps D.C. legislators in important ways, like preventing them from investing in region-specific programs. Some argue that if D.C. had been a state, President Trump would not have been able to militarize the region against protesters last month.

When the House votes this week on the issue of statehood, it will be the first time since 1993 that the proposal has come before lawmakers. Others have tried to bring the legislation to a vote — members of Congress have introduced statehood bills every year since 1965, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C.'s singular non-voting member of Congress, has routinely introduced statehood legislation. "The District functions as a state, [but] the District does not have the final vote," Norton tells Mic.

Because Norton does not have voting power in the House — even though she has served as the District's representative since 1991 — she won't be able to vote on her own legislation this week. "The first thing I did as a freshman was not only introduce a D.C. statehood bill, but actually get it to the floor," Norton says. But getting the bill to be put up for a vote was another issue, as Norton says that the bloc of southern Democrats who controlled the chamber at the time stood in her way.

This "taxation without representation," as license plates in the District proclaim, perpetuates a formal second-class citizenship status, a coalition of organizations wrote to the House Oversight Committee last year. "States are the fundamental basis for our system of government, and to deny a population the ability to form a state denies them the ability to fully participate in self-governance," read the letter, which was signed by more than 100 civil rights organizations. "Any solution short of statehood would simply continue the two-tiered system of citizenship present in our democracy today."

Whereas some might see this issue as one of ethics, concerning enfranchisement and democracy, Norton says that D.C. statehood has always been about the powerbrokers in Washington. "I think it should be understood for what it is: a strictly political issue," Norton says.

"There’s no doubt in my mind if this were a Republican city and a white city that this would have happened some time ago."

Because of that politicization, the issue is unlikely to pass the Senate; Republican members will likely chafe at the fact that making D.C. a state would almost certainly mean adding two more Democratic senators to the chamber. In 2016, Hillary Clinton secured 90% of the popular vote and the District's three electoral votes. And despite the often-cited conservative value of state's rights, some Republicans feel that holding onto the Senate during this tumultuous election year is a high priority — especially as the outcome of the presidential election seems increasingly unclear.

Even Hoyer, the House's second-ranking Democrat, has a long history of statehood denial. But now, he's cast the issue as one of Republican oppression, particularly given D.C.'s large Black population and liberal reputation. "There’s no doubt in my mind if this were a Republican city and a white city that this would have happened some time ago,” Hoyer said of statehood, according to The Washington Post. He added that it's time to "engage the reality of the moment as to whether we are going to treat people with the respect and dignity and the rights they should have under the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The vote this Friday will be a "historic day in the nation's capital," Norton says. She's hoping that after this November's elections, Democrats might have a few more senators on their side and the bill might be able to pass the upper chamber. And then, maybe, the District will no longer be a district, but a state.