Sanders, Clinton both support Washington, D.C. as 51st state

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton agree: It's time for the residents of the nation's capital to be represented in Congress.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) of Vermont speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on June 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Echoing the Revolutionary battle cry against Britain, some Washington, D.C., residents and presidential candidates are tired of "taxation without representation" in the nation's capital. 

Washington's Mayor Muriel Bowser, a leader in the statehood campaign, organized a three-day constitutional convention beginning Monday with the ultimate goal of producing a state constitution for the District of Columbia. Proponents hope the constitution will be approved by voters in November and then approved by a Democratic Congress and president. Through the New Columbia Statehood Commission, the people of Washington have elected a "shadow" congressional delegation of one representative and two senators. 

"The lack of statehood has hurt our democracy for far too long. It is past time," elected Washington "shadow" Sen. Paul Strauss tells The Christian Science Monitor. "We have a well-functioning government at the local level and a poorly functioning government at the congressional level and it makes trying to govern an American jurisdiction exceedingly difficult."

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reiterated his support for D.C. statehood at a campaign rally there last week, telling the audience, "I hope that the next time I'm back we're going to be talking about the state of Washington, D.C."

According to a 2015 report by the US Census Bureau, Washington has a population of more than 672,000 residents, more than Wyoming and Vermont. Washington residents also pay more federal taxes than 22 states, and they are subject to some of the highest per capita tax rates in the country.

"Washington, D.C., is home to more people than the state of Vermont, yet its residents lack voting representation in Congress," said Senator Sanders Saturday. "I think it is morally wrong for American citizens who pay federal taxes, fight in our wars and live in our country to be denied the basic right to full congressional representation." 

Despite being the nation's capital, Washington has no active representation in Congress. Residents have no representation whatsoever in the Senate, and a single delegate – without voting rights – represents all of D.C. in the House of Representatives. And funding allocation is another thorny issue. As Senator Strauss points out, citizens of the nation's capital were left without a federal or state budget when Congress failed to agree on a national budget in 2013. 

"We want to be treated just like any other state," the district's nonvoting House delegate Eleanor Norton told Vox. "To understand statehood, you have to understand what it means to be unequal in your own country." 

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton agrees, penning an article for The Washington Informer Saturday that equates Washington's lack of statehood to disenfranchisement.

"Hard as it is to believe, America is the only democracy on the planet that treats the residents of [its] capital this way," writes Mrs. Clinton. "That's why, as president, I will be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood. Washingtonians are Americans, too, and it's time they had a say in their own status."

But Clinton's and Sanders's statements come before the Washington Democratic primary Tuesday, a seemingly pointless contest that some say mirrors the region's overall role in national politics. 

"Hillary Clinton has also endorsed the plan," writes The Guardian in response to statehood, "although the fact that Washington's Democratic primary is the last in the country, and a 'dead rubber' now that Clinton is certain of victory, could be seen as symbolic of how one city deeply underrepresented in Washington politics is Washington itself." 

Until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, District of Columbia residents were prevented from voting in presidential elections. The amendment stipulates that D.C. cannot have more Electoral College representatives than the state with the smallest population, effectively giving the state three representatives.  

But even if statehood has widespread support in and outside the District, it will be a difficult change to enact. Lawmakers would have to approve the addition of a 51st state, but such a move would be counterintuitive to their own agendas as it would effectively add more Congressmen and women, diluting the power of the 50 states' current 535 voting members. 

Republican Congressional representatives will put up an even stronger fight because the District of Columbia is notoriously Democratic.

As former Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich candidly explained of statehood earlier this year, "That's just more votes in the Democratic party." 

But "We are not going to wait," adds Strauss. "Tennessee, California, Alaska, Michigan and Oregon did not wait for enabling legislation – they pursued statehood in advanced. We are going to be ready on Day 1."

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