The Obama Effect: When the President Backs D.C. Statehood, Congress Does, Too

Barack Obama ends his White House term in January of 2017. That means the president has less than 24 months to act meaningfully on D.C. statehood -- a constitutional policy that would finally grant equal citizenship rights to the tax-paying, disenfranchised population of Washington, D.C.

I believe that one of the most effective actions Obama could take in advancing D.C. voting rights would be to publicly reiterate his support for D.C. statehood, this time while the 114th Congress is in session.

Chart 1, below, is a timeline of how many members of the House newly cosponsored D.C. statehood legislation in the 113th Congress, and when they did.


You'll note three major spikes in the chart. Some insights into the peaks you see above.

Peak One: January 2013

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's democratically-elected, non-voting Delegate to Congress, introduced D.C. statehood legislation on January 15, 2013 in the form of the New Columbia Admission Act, H.R. 292. Fifteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives formally cosponsored the bill by the end of the day.

Peak Two: June 2013

In an unveiling ceremony on June 19, 2013, presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, the U.S. Congress finally permitted D.C. a single statue representing the District, in the form of a seven-foot-tall, bronze manifestation of Frederick Douglass. Notably, other states are allotted two statue-shaped representations in the official National Statuary Hall Collection.

D.C.'s statue delegation contrasts not only in number but also in substance to its carved counterparts from the fifty states. Douglass is an accomplished abolitionist and voting rights advocate. Some other states, it appears, have more pro-slavery tastes in the sculptures they choose to represent them in the corridors of the U.S. Capitol.

Just a handful of examples, currently on display:
  • Robert E. Lee, commander of the confederate forces during the Civil War (statue donated by Virginia)
  • Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy (statue donated by Mississippi)
  • Alexander Stephens, vice president of the confederacy (statue donated by Georgia)
  • Wade Hampton, confederate cavalry leader (statue donated by South Carolina)
  • John C. Calhoun, influential pro-slavery Senator (statue donated by South Carolina)

D.C. statehood activists had been lobbying Congress hard in the months preceding the Douglass ceremony. In particular, U.S. Representative Nate Bennett-Fleming (D-D.C.) and Josh Burch of Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood organized dozens of volunteers to advocate for D.C. statehood in meetings with hundreds of congressional offices.

Thirteen members of Congress signed on as sponsors to H.R. 292 in the month of June.

Peak Three: July 2014

On July 21, 2014, President Barack Obama announced his support for D.C. statehood for the first time since elected to the highest office. Incidentally, Biden had expressed his favorable position on statehood four days prior, when confronted by D.C. statehood activists attending the Netroots Nation political convention in Detroit.

Between July 21 and the end of the month, 17 House members signed on to the D.C. statehood bill. An additional 28 cosponsors added their names before the end of the year.

Which is to say, more than 40 percent of the New Columbia Admission Act's cosponsors attached their names to the bill in the five months between Obama's announcement and the close of the 113th Congress.

Norton introduced D.C. statehood legislation to the 114th Congress in January. No member of the Senate has come forward to introduce a statehood bill on that end of the Capitol so far.

I call the evident sway our president's legislative endorsements have on bill-specific congressional behavior the "Obama Effect." I believe Congress would be more inclined to move on the New Columbia Admission Act if Obama were to re-state his position on D.C. statehood. My hope is that he will.