The D.C. Statehood Ambassadors meet regularly at the Denny’s restaurant on Benning Road in Northeast, where, over coffee and a light breakfast, the members talk about the strategies needed to educate residents about why the city should be the 51st state and the benefits of such a move.
But at Friday’s meeting, another topic came up: a bill by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would establish a federal panel to study giving voting representation in the U.S. Congress “for citizens of the United States who reside in a territory, commonwealth or federal district of the United States.”
The Rev. Mary Hooker Robinson said the legislation is disingenuous, with its true intent being to slow the city’s push for statehood.
“I don’t like that bill,” Robinson said. “First of all, I am a citizen of this country and I have a right to be represented in the Congress. This bill is, in my opinion, a stall tactic. While it appears to have good intentions, it really doesn’t address the fact that people who live in D.C. don’t have full representation in Congress even though we are expected to pay federal taxes.”
Merkley’s bill — the We the People Commission on Full Representation Act of 2019 — calls for a panel of 10 members with two each from the president of the United States, the Senate’s majority and minority leaders, and the House speaker and minority leader. The District and the territories would have at least one member on the commission, the bill said, with the president selecting the chairman.
The bill, introduced on March 28, 2019, stipulates the commission submit a final report to the House and Senate on its conclusions two years after starting its work.
In a statement, Merkley said the legislation is for the “four million taxpaying Americans living in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the territories who do not have representation.”
“They should have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the Congress,” the senator said.
However, Beverly L. Perry, a senior adviser to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, said there could be some value to Merkley’s bill, particularly as a bargaining chip for D.C. statehood legislation in a Senate during the next session in which the Republicans could hold a one-person majority, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the constitutionally-mandated president of that body, possessing a vote on close issues.
“If we, as Democrats, don’t win both Senate seats in Georgia on Jan. 5, then the Merkley bill could be used as a tool to advance D.C. statehood as a civil rights issue,” Perry said. “Thinking about it now, the president setting up a commission to study the issue of 706,000 taxpaying citizens who live in the District and have every obligation of citizenship but no representation in the U.S. Congress may have some benefit. The commission could be a tool to quantify the lack of full citizenship of District residents.”
Merkley’s bill currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) had no comment on Merkley’s legislation. In June, the House passed D.C. statehood legislation, a first. Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) has a companion bill on D.C. statehood which, ironically, Merkley has signed as a co-sponsor.
Despite the potential of Merkley’s bill as a legislative tool in a divided Senate, Perry said District residents shouldn’t be a political pawn and should have a voice and vote in the national government as all other American citizens do.
Joyce Robinson-Paul, who regularly convenes the D.C. Statehood Ambassadors meetings, agreed, saying District residents voted overwhelmingly for a pro-statehood referendum in 2016 and is the will of the people of the city.
“We don’t want anything else but statehood, and we want it now,” said Robinson-Paul, who ran unsuccessfully for D.C. shadow representative this month.