Nebraska lawmakers introduce resolution to encourage Washington, D.C. statehood

Published: May. 30, 2023 at 4:46 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) - A pair of Nebraska lawmakers are joining a national push to make Washington, D.C. the nation’s 51st state.

Legislative Resolution 146, introduced by Lincoln State Sens. Danielle Conrad and George Dungan, would urge Nebraska’s congressional delegation to support statehood for the nation’s capital if passed by the full Legislature. This would be a non-binding encouragement to U.S. Reps. Mike Flood, Don Bacon and Adrian Smith and U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts.

Conrad described the resolution, introduced on May 11, as a way to strengthen the country’s democracy and ensure equal rights for all its citizens.

“I think that each state has a part to play, as do our federal representatives to try and correct a historic wrong in regards to the legal status of the residents in our nation’s capital,” Conrad told the Nebraska Examiner.

Washington, D.C. has one non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and no Senate representation.

‘Encouragement and incentive’

Dungan said the importance of direct representation is also in allowing the district to adopt its own rules and regulations without being “mired” in national politics.

Congress has a sort of “veto” power over D.C. laws, such as those passed by the D.C. City Council, and it is able to reject some of those laws in a way similar to a governor for state action or president for congressional action.

For example, the U.S. House in February passed a resolution defeating proposed changes that D.C. officials wanted to make to local immigration and criminal penalty policies. Congress has also used its power to pass provisions prohibiting the sale of marijuana and banning the district from using Medicaid funds to fund abortions for low-income residents.

Dungan said the resolution is essentially encouragement and incentive.

“We can’t bind people to anything, obviously, with an LR, but I think that the information contained in the resolution, if read, is certainly compelling,” Dungan said.

Conrad, the former head of the ACLU of Nebraska, noted that D.C. has a significant Black population, so the conversation is also about civil rights.

“I just really feel like it’s important to put our politics aside and try and address that historical injustice, because it’s just a matter of fundamental fairness for me,” Conrad said.

Legal questions of statehood

The U.S. House has passed two historic resolutions in support of D.C. statehood, for the first time in June 2020 and again in April 2021. Bacon and former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry voted against both, while Smith voted against it in 2020 but did not vote on the 2021 resolution.

No similar legislation has come up for a vote during Flood’s time in office nor in the U.S. Senate for Fischer or Ricketts.

In a Tuesday tweet, Flood said he is a “no” on any measure to make D.C. a state.

“It’s a federal district that’s designed to ensure that no state in our nation gains advantage over another,” Flood said. “For the good of our country, it should stay that way.”

In a 2021 statement, Bacon said there are three issues with D.C. statehood, including a specific clause in the U.S. Constitution and the Twenty-Third Amendment.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution addresses the size of the federal district while the Twenty-Third Amendment afforded presidential electors to D.C.

Bacon said he could not support statehood unless changes were made to that clause and amendment.

Conrad said the legal questions are important to the dialogue but have been “unequivocally answered” by historians and legal scholars.

It’s important to update the legal framework, Conrad said, but D.C. residents deserve full and equal political participation and representation.

“It’s just really that simple,” she said.

She encouraged Nebraska’s congressional delegation to keep an open mind and to “think deeply” about how everyone can work to ensure full and equal voting rights and representation.

A seat at the table

Bacon also criticized past efforts as a “liberal political power grab,” with the goal of adding two more Democrats to the Senate.

However, Conrad and Dungan, two registered Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, pushed back and said it’s about representation, not politics.

D.C. residents have voted in favor of statehood in the past, and the state’s population is larger than Wyoming and Vermont and comparable to Alaska and North Dakota.

Dungan said he lived in D.C. for a while, including going to law school before coming back to Nebraska.

“It comes from a real deep-seated desire to have people have their voices heard,” Dungan said. “That’s kind of been my Northstar for a lot of my politics is making sure people have their voices heard.”

Conrad said that due to the “dynamics” of the 2023 session, and with just about a week left in the session, she has asked that the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee wait for a substantive hearing until 2024.

“We’ll look forward to digging into the issue more over the interim and trying to build support for that hearing next year,” Conrad said.

Puerto Rico status

Some have brought up the issue of what to do with the territory of Puerto Rico in addition to D.C. statehood.

Nebraska Sens. Danielle Conrad and George Dungan, both of Lincoln, said the issues are related but carry different historical and legal issues than D.C. Still, they agreed, representation is critical.

In December 2022, U.S. Rep. Don Bacon supported a measure for the people of Puerto Rico to determine their next steps forward, whether that be statehood, independence or independence followed by free association with the U.S.

U.S. Reps. Mike Flood and Adrian Smith voted against the act, and it was not considered in the Senate.

Conrad said she has not yet had a chance to explore with colleagues how state legislators could try and raise similar matters for Puerto Rico. However, she “definitely would be open to exploring that either in tandem with this effort next year or separately if it would be helpful to educating people about these issues and trying to build support for them.”

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