Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is a shameful excuse for a Democrat. Her adamant refusal to take even the most basic procedural step to defend voting rights should mean that, as the president of Emily’s List suggested, she “[finds] herself standing alone in the next election.” The same goes for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who ought not be forgiven for failing to support a filibuster workaround that would have allowed for enactment of legislation to address extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other attempts to overturn the will of the people.
Still, it’s important to remember that the “Manchinema” mess is merely the latest manifestation of the structural inequity that is tripping up legislative initiatives in the current Congress and could cost Democrats control of future Congresses. There have always been Democrats who abandon their party’s platform and principles to pursue personal advantage or twisted ideological agendas. Indeed, some of the more virulent opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came from segregationist Democrats.
What makes a Sinema or a Manchin matter so much in today’s Senate is the fact that the chamber is split 50-50, and just one dissident Democrat can upend the best-laid plans of the president and the party. If Democrats could add two senators from D.C.—and perhaps more from other unrepresented parts of the country—they wouldn’t face quite so many barriers to their legislative agenda. They could lose a vote from a member of the caucus and still muster a majority—directly or, if necessary, with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris. But, as long as the filibuster rule remains, a minority of senators representing a minority of Americans will be able to block action on voting rights, labor rights, policing reforms, initiatives to address the climate crisis, and other big-ticket proposals such as Build Back Better legislation.
How then can the Senate become more representative? By making the District of Columbia a state.
“Today we’re talking about the filibuster, but consider this: We wouldn’t even be in this situation if Washington, D.C., had two senators—the two senators we deserve,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser explained in a Martin Luther King Day speech to voting rights activists.
D.C. statehood is, first and foremost, a moral imperative. As Bowser said, “We cannot talk about voting rights without talking about the disenfranchisement of 700,000 taxpaying citizens—a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow America.” No US citizen should be denied full representation in the legislative branch of the federal government. That includes the multiracial, multiethnic population of almost 700,000 Americans who live in D.C., almost 80 percent of whom supported a 2016 referendum on statehood.
D.C. statehood must also be understood as a practical political imperative for Democrats who represent the vast majority of Americans—in the current Senate, the 50 Democrats represent 41,549,808 more Americans than the 50 Republicans—but who have to struggle to govern because of the narrowness of their majority.
A failure to make D.C. statehood a priority when Democrats had wider majorities in past Congresses has come back to haunt the party now. It’s something today’s Democrats need to recognize as they ponder their sorry circumstance after fighting and failing to get the votes needed to overturn the filibuster and protect free and fair elections.
The House endorsed D.C. statehood in April 2021, with a 216-208 party-line vote approving House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Washington, D.C. Admission Act. “This Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, D.C. statehood is within reach for the first time in history,” declared Norton, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom who has long identified the push for statehood as a human rights struggle.
Unfortunately, as with so many initiatives promoting economic, social, and racial justice that have passed the House in this Congress, statehood legislation faces rough going in the Senate. And, yes, Manchin is a roadblock. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat who is close to President Biden, has pushed hard for the measure, attracting 45 Senate cosponsors. But the West Virginian isn’t one of them.
Manchin has said that, instead of making D.C. a state by a simple majority vote in the Senate, supporters should be required to make the change with a constitutional amendment. Manchin’s argument is cynical and wrongheaded; New states have historically been admitted via congressional approval, not constitutional amendments.
Being wrong hasn’t stopped Manchin before, however, and his obstructionism is a serious barrier. But this is about more than Manchin. This is about clarity on the part of Democrats when it comes to the structural issues that they too frequently have neglected over the years.
Democrats need to recognize that obstructionists will continue to be a threat until they make democratic infrastructure issues central to their mission. Beyond D.C. statehood, the party that has twice in recent years won the popular vote for president and then lost the electoral vote should also be all about abolishing the Electoral College. But that really does require a constitutional amendment—or, failing that, a cumbersome National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that would attempt to “guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”
Despite what Manchin says, D.C. statehood simply requires majority votes in the House and Senate. With that in mind, securing pro-statehood majorities ought to be a priority. Democratic challengers to Republicans incumbents in 2022 midterm elections, and Democrats running in open races for House and Senate seats, should be pressed to take clear, unequivocal stands on the issue. The same goes for Republicans, such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who hold out hope for building a coalition that includes Democratic crossover votes and liberal independents to win in 2022.
If D.C. statehood cannot be achieved in the 117th Congress, then surely it should be job one in the 118th Congress—and in every session of Congress until it has been achieved.
Yes, cynical Republican will object, echoing Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s claim that D.C. statehood is “just a naked power grab.” But, as usual, Johnson and his hyper-partisan allies get the calculus precisely wrong. The opponents of government of, by, and for the people made their power grab long ago, when they created a Senate where a minority of members could thwart the will of the vast majority of Americans as expressed in presidential and congressional elections. D.C. statehood, like statehood for other US territories that seek it, simply tips the balance back in the direction of democracy—for Washington and for the whole of the United States.