Suspended State

The revolutionary call “no taxation without representation” reverberates across Washington, D.C., centuries after it was first issued on this continent. Passionate advocates, having led the charge for statehood through decades of debate, found new voice in the “Statehood or Else” campaign, spearheaded by D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large, LAW ’88) mid-October. On Oct. 27, the Council’s Committee of the Whole held a public hearing on the measure where most speakers present testified that they supported it. Although the campaign aims at a noble end, its reductionist strategy to accrue one million signatures has elicited more questions than political progress. Unless this uncertainty is fully remedied, students should hesitate before lending their support to a movement so lacking in clarity.

Statehood advocates created “Statehood or Else” to elevate the long struggle for statehood to a national priority. This is certainly a worthy goal. Even though D.C. boasts an economy larger than those of 14 states, it is barred from full statehood and the representation rights that entails. As a result, residents of the District are denied equal representation in Congress and legislators can meddle in the local legal and fiscal concerns of the district with relative impunity. It is with sad irony that the nation’s capital continues to exist in this anti-democratic fashion.

While the “Statehood or Else” campaign advocates for an important cause, its ambiguous brand and lack of compelling political strategies must be addressed before students extend their full support. The campaign employs a provocative but undefined slogan.

“Statehood or Else” leaves a fundamental question unanswered — or else what? In practice, “Statehood or Else” could mean canvassing throughout major events like the Cherry Blossom Festival. On the other hand, the name might suggest more extreme forms of civil disobedience in D.C.

This branding problem is compounded by the unclear political strategies employed by the campaign. “Statehood or Else” has called to collect one million signatures, but the District’s population hovers around 658,000. The campaign’s lack of publicity and national coverage makes this an unrealistic goal. Councilmember Orange and those who support this petition must do all they can to propel this issue into the national spotlight if one million signatures are to be reached.

If the petition receives one million signatures, it will be delivered to the president, all 535 members of Congress and party leaders at their respective conventions held this coming summer. Although this intended audience is impressive, it is unclear what political function a single petition can serve in propelling the District to statehood. A nonbinding referendum on statehood held in similar fashion to the one held in Puerto Rico on Dec. 11, 2012 would lend better voice to district residents’ wishes. It is easy to engage citizens into signing a petition, but if citizens remain unclear in regard to what the petition will result in, Councilmember Orange will deliver a document replete with empty signatures. Orange and those who support the campaign must first educate residents on the importance of having the district recognized as a state and then clearly define the specific aims they intend to achieve on their proposed Sense of Council resolution.

Likewise, “Statehood or Else” has chosen not to build upon the political momentum already established by the New Columbia Admission Act. This bill has been regularly introduced before Congress and would make D.C. the 51st American state. However, the campaign, for reasons that remain unclear, has opted to ignore the bill in its ballot initiatives.

Although the possibility of statehood entertains popular support, students should withhold support from the “Statehood or Else” campaign until the movement clarifies its brand and pursues a more sensible strategy. Without statehood status, Congress has total control of D.C’s laws and local funds. This means that a federal government shutdown would result in a total suspension of D.C. municipal services — Georgetown students might remember overflowing trashcans and dumpsters during the 2013 shutdown. For students who are D.C. residents, the lack of statehood prevents them from receiving comparable state financial aid. Students should support well-defined movements with clear aims to argue for such a right. Ambiguous movements like “Statehood or Else” cannot hope to survive in the political arena.

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