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Congressional hearing on D.C. statehood bill fails to clarify issues

*By Howard Hills

Alice M. Rivlin was Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve.  People took notice when she testified before a U.S. Senate committee on a bill to make Washington D.C. a State of the Union.

But it was as a private citizen and one of 646,000 other D.C. residents that Rivlin testified.  Speaking not as an expert on the topic but more as an average citizen, Rivlin reminded Congress that Americans in the nation’s capital:

  • Pay taxes, go to war, bear patriotic allegiance to our nation
  • Do not have voting representation in either House of Congress
  • Live in a federal reservation with limited home rule subject to the supreme power of a Congress
  • Live under a home rule regime that made more promises than it could keep without borrowing more than it could pay back
  • Want home rule expanded to restore and increase budgetary powers of D.C. government, now that finances are on a more sound footing
  • Want statehood so Congress will have to deal with them the way it deals with the rest of the states.

If Rivlin approached the issue of D.C. status with the same command of policy she wields on public finance issues, her testimony may well have included these additional points:

  • The status of D.C. is defined in the Constitution, but it is governed by federal law
  • Washington D.C. arguably has too many U.S. citizens for indefinite disenfranchisement to continue without any path to a more democratic form of government
  • Statehood is an option, but not the only option to achieve a democratic solution
  • Only Congress can answer the political question of whether statehood as proposed in the D.C. statehood bill is a politically viable option that best serves the national interest
  • If not the citizens of D.C. and their elected leaders need to decide if preserving the home rule regime is more important that the equal citizenship and fully democratic participation achievable only through statehood
  • If D.C. wants fully democratic rights but separate statehood is not offered by Congress, then Congress needs to decide if it will offer the area that would become a State under the D.C. statehood bill retrocession to Maryland, just as part of D.C. was returned to Virginia in the past
  • Only statehood or integration into a State will confer equal rights of citizenship
  • Statutory fixes that do not confer the citizenship rights that come with statehood are not a sufficient remedy, and some proposed remedies set the stage for constitutional crisis, specifically –
    • Congress cannot by statute simply give the D.C. delegate a vote in the House because that would dilute the “one man one vote” rights of citizens in the states based on population-based apportionment of representation
    • On its face the 23rd Amendment right to vote for a presidential elector has failed to end – and instead has been used as an excuse to continue – second class “separate and unequal” citizenship without full democratic rights
    • A statutory vote in one House, a vote in committee but not on the floor under House rules, an amendment to vote for a presidential elector, all these gimmicks are as flawed in their own way as the 3/5th’s compromise that created a more infamous denial of citizenship rights
    • Statutory fixes that are not even binding on Congress form a “less perfect” Union

Washington D.C. is not a U.S. territory being made ready for statehood or nationhood in the same way that that the status of territories is resolved under Article IV of the Constitution.  Instead, D.C. is a federal reservation in a different constitutional status under Article I, and is governed by Congress for a different national purpose than territories.

Although each is in a different status constitutionally, like the 646,000 citizens of the District of Columbia the 3.5 million citizens of Puerto Rico cannot achieve equal citizenship with Americans in the States of the Union through statutory measures creating constitutionally temporary and non-binding rights.

In the case of D.C., statehood or recession to Maryland are the constitutional alternatives to less than fully undemocratic home rule as a federal reservation.  For Puerto Rico, the Constitution provides statehood or nationhood as the status options for Puerto Rico to become a fully democratic society.

*The author served as lead counsel in the White House National Security Council and provided advice and counsel on territorial status affairs during the Reagan administration.  The views expressed above are his personal opinions only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Puerto Rico Report.

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