Testimony of Kesh Ladduwahetty, Chair, DC for Democracy before the Committee of the Whole, Council of the District of Columbia regarding B21-826 (Constitution for the State of New Columbia Approval Amendment Act of 2016 on September 27, 2016.
My name is Kesh Ladduwahetty, and I am testifying on behalf of DC for Democracy, which has been working to advance democracy and good governance in the District of Columbia since 2005. We have also been an active member of the DC Statehood Coalition since 2009. Our members are committed to achieving statehood and making our new state a model of democracy in the Union.
We are heartened by the new momentum in the statehood movement and excited at the prospect of our leading elected officials petitioning Congress for statehood next year. We need the DC Council to be deeply invested in the statehood movement and to lend your considerable resources to this effort. At the same time, we are here to join with many others to urge the Council to set the statehood initiative on a solid democratic foundation, while preserving the essence of the Mayor’s proposal.
It is no accident that many of us who are most concerned about the lack of adherence to basic democratic principles in the drafting of this constitution are those who have devoted so much of our time and energies to statehood. We have worked so hard for statehood because we are so committed to democracy. We cannot conceive of one without the other.
We appreciate that given the constraints of the current process, the Council must act quickly to draft a constitution well before the November referendum. The voters surely need to know what they are approving. But there is no reason that the constitution cannot be further improved after the November referendum.
The constitution that is before you now has been in the process of being drafted since April. While this constitution is being written, lobbying for the New Columbia Admission Act has continued. A few weeks ago, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii signed on as a co-sponsor. Several House members have co-sponsored since April. Clearly, statehood is advancing in Congress while this constitution is being drafted.
Similarly, the DC Government can petition Congress for statehood starting next January while we further improve the constitution that the Council enacts this year, which will likely be termed the 2016 constitution. The 2016 constitution can be submitted to a Constitutional Convention of elected delegates who can adequately deliberate on the matter to an extent that the Council is unable to do, given the highly compressed timeline and competing priorities.
Even if the Council had the time and energies to fully consider this constitution, principles of good governance advise that a body other than the Council author the constitution. Councilmembers were not elected to draft a constitution and face significant conflicts of interest, including, most seriously, the question of the size of the House of Delegates. For these reasons, the quality and legitimacy of a constitution drafted by the Council will be questioned.
The Council can demonstrate its commitment to a constitution of the highest quality and legitimacy by requiring a Constitutional Convention composed of elected delegates to further improve the 2016 Constitution, and to establish the detailed procedures for this Constitutional Convention in separate legislation by early 2017. A Constitutional Convention is a multi-year process that includes the election of delegates, the drafting of the constitution, educating and obtaining input from the public, and approval through a referendum. By saving citizens the enormous effort and expense of a ballot initiative, the Council will go far towards demonstrating your commitment to democracy and good governance. Such a Constitutional Convention would serve the people of the District of Columbia well in either of the two possible scenarios before us.
The first scenario, a very optimistic one, is that admission is granted by the next Congress, in which case, the Constitutional Convention can continue its work after admission. This requires two amendments to the constitution:
First, Article VII, Section 3, “Constitution Amendment procedure” should delete the current language and replace it with language that allows amendment by a Constitutional Convention that is in session at the time of admission.
Second, Article VIII, Section 1, “Transfer of Offices” should include a new paragraph that allows a Constitutional Convention that is in session at the time of admission to be deemed a valid Constitutional Convention of the State of New Columbia.
The above changes would allow the Constitutional Convention to continue its work following admission, without further action by the House of Delegates.
The second scenario, which is far more likely, is that admission is not granted by the next Congress. In this case, a Constitutional Convention can begin the work of refining and improving the Constitution in 2017 or 2018, even while we press for statehood in Congress. By doing so, we avoid wasting valuable time.
By requiring a Constitutional Convention with elected delegates in separate legislation by early 2017, the Council will allow the DC Government to petition Congress for statehood, in accordance with the Mayor’s proposal, and at the same time, demonstrate to the public that you will uphold basic principles of democracy and good governance.
Additionally, we urge the Council to do the following:
Pledge to finalize the constitution at least two weeks prior to the November, 2016 election to allow for the public to understand what they are approving; and
Article VII, Section 4, “Effective Date.” Amend this section to specify that the constitution and boundaries must be formally ratified by voters after admission into the Union. There has been much confusion about the legal weight of the Advisory Referendum. It is our understanding that voter approval of the Advisory Referendum does not have legal weight. Furthermore, Congress may change the Constitution and/or the boundaries during the Admission process.
Thank you for your consideration.
Read the testimony of other DC4D members:
Testimony of Andrea Rosen
Testimony of Jesse Lovell