Mar 26, 2020

Coronavirus: Treatment as US Territory could deny Washingtonians $750 in COVID-19 Relief

The US Senate approved a COVID-19 relief bill that would shortchange Washington, D.C. by approximately $750 million, despite the District having more confirmed cases than many other states. Essentially, this comes down to the question of statehood: the $2 trillion federal relief bill treats Washington, D.C. like one of the five US territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico, which should divide a total of $3 billion aid by population. This would leave only $500 million to the District, in contrast to at least $1.25 billion guaranteed for each federal state. However, Washington, D.C. counts more COVID-19 cases than many other states, and pays federal taxes, in contrast to the five US territories. The bill was approved by a 96-0 vote on Wednesday 25th March and is expected to enter the House on Friday 27th March.

Below is an article by The Washington Post

The $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill could shortchange the District by an estimated $750 million by treating the nation’s capital as a US territory, even though Washington has more confirmed cases than many states. The Senate approved the measure by a 96-0 vote late on Wednesday. The House is expected to take up the bill on Friday.

Draft legislation circulating on Wednesday called for the District and five territories to divide $3 billion by population, meaning the District would receive only about $500 million, which is less than half the minimum $1.25 billion guaranteed to each state, officials said.

The largest emergency relief package in American history, the bill is intended to bolster the US economy and stabilize households and businesses that have been decimated by the coronavirus outbreak.

The District is almost always treated like a full-fledged state by the federal government when it comes to grants, highway funding, education dollars, food assistance and Medicaid reimbursement.

Unlike the territories — Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa — D.C. residents pay federal taxes.

As of Wednesday, the District had 235 known cases of COVID-19, including three deaths. That’s more than three times the number of confirmed cases in the five territories combined, and more than in 19 states, according to data gathered by The Washington Post.

District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and the full council urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) to treat the District like a state for funding purposes.

“It would be unconscionable to provide the District, which pays the most in federal taxes per capita, with the least amount of relief funding per capita of any state,” they wrote in a letter to the Senate leaders on Wednesday evening.

A McConnell spokesman referred questions to the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose representative did not respond to a request for comment.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he would try to make the District whole.

“The nearly 700,000 citizens of the District of Columbia deserve the same treatment with regards to emergency assistance as their counterparts in neighboring states,” he said in a statement. “I will work with my colleagues to ensure the D.C. government receives the resources it needs to support its citizens during this pandemic.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the legislation is unfair. “The people of the District of Columbia pay federal income taxes, and Republicans must stop treating them as second class citizens,” he said in a statement. “To ensure an effective response to the coronavirus and to protect its citizens and our federal workforce, Washington should receive funding on-par with states.”

The potential funding slightly opens a new chapter in the District’s long fight to not just be treated as a state, but be counted as the 51st state, known as State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.

Statehood advocates believe they have made progress on the issue this year, with the first hearing in a generation and every indication that the majority-Democratic House will vote on a statehood bill sponsored by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s non-voting representative. However, it is expected to die in the Senate.

Norton said she asked the Senate to fix what she believes was an oversight in the relief bill. “If this was not an oversight by Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, I have asked Senate Democrats to demand that it be fixed before the vote,” she said in statement.

In an interview, Mendelson said the District needs the money as much, if not more, than the average state because its population is entirely urban and densely packed, potentially exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re desperately trying to avoid getting to the point the New York City region is at,” he said, referring to the dire situation there.

The more than 600-page Senate bill specifically names the District of Columbia and the five territories in two places.

“We, and I’m speaking for a number of council members, are very upset that the Senate has miscalculated,” Mendelson said. “I’m assuming it’s a miscalculation.”

The District would use the money to help businesses and individuals and pay for public health resources, including personal protective equipment and surge capacity for intensive-care units, he said.

D.C. officials estimate the revenue loss for this year alone caused by the health crisis could be $500 million.


Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post