The District operates politically under a Home Rule Charter in which local officials legislate and manage the city under the watchful eye of the U.S. Congress, an arrangement unique to the nation’s capital. Residents who recall the early days of home rule continue to express a wide range of views, including a continued desire for statehood.
The District Home Rule Act, passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Nixon, became operational on Dec. 24, 1973, allowing the city limited self-government for the first time in over a century. The legislation devolved certain congressional powers of the District to local government, including a charter providing for the election of a mayor, city council and elected community leaders known as advisory neighborhood commissioners. Under the charter, Congress reviews legislation passed by the council and signed by the mayor and retains authority over the city’s budget. The charter mandates that the President appoint District judges with Senate approval, but no provision exists granting voting representation in the U.S. Congress.
The District’s road to Home Rule took nearly two centuries, starting in 1790 when the Congress created the District from land given to it from Maryland and Virginia for a national capital. In 1802, citizens of Washington City, a part of the District at that time, petitioned Congress for a municipal charter. The congressionally-approved charter incorporated Washington as a city and allowed voters to elect a legislative body — a council — and its government had the ability to assess taxes on real estate to pay for governmental functions. The charter also created a mayoral position appointed by the President.
In 1846, the Virginia portion of the District receded back to that state. In the early 1870s, the three portions of the District — Washington City, Georgetown and Washington County in Maryland — came under one jurisdiction and achieved territorial status with a governor and a council appointed by the President, a House of Delegates elected by the people and a nonvoting delegate to the Congress. Under a cloud of scandal a few years after, Congress scrapped the territorial system and installed three commissioners appointed by the President to manage the District. The commissioner system lasted nearly a century.
Dr. Calvin Rolark, staunch proponent of Home Rule, statehood, and the founder of The Washington Informer, said of this history that it implied not only the lack of capacity among District residents in the mind of federal leaders, but also fed the fears of federal authorities that the right to govern would negatively impact the nation.
“I fully believe that the creation of an Attorney General Office for the District would substantially increase citizen involvement, especially considering the role of District voters in the structure of the office,” he said in a November 1983 commentary. “Secondly, to the question of the desirability of transferring the power of appointment and confirmation of judges from the President and the U.S. Senate to the mayor and the city council, I am stringently in favor of an independent judiciary. Further, I am aware that legislative history suggests that congress allowed for presidential appointment of judges to insure an independent judiciary. However, in my opinion, mayoral appointment and city council confirmation would in no way undermine the independence of the office. Furthermore, the mayor and city council are just as able to apply the criteria used by the President and senate in appointment and confirmation decisions.”
Throughout the years, District residents pressed the Congress for Home Rule and as a result, the Senate passed bills calling for it six times from 1948 to 1966. However, the Senate’s Home Rule bills died each time in the House District of Columbia Committee because of the Southern chairmen’s hostility toward the city’s large Black population. Home Rule had the endorsement of President Dwight Eisenhower during the 1950s.
In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed allowing District residents three electors in the Electoral College during presidential election years. In 1967, with the civil rights movement in full force, President Lyndon Johnson disbanded the commissioners and appointed a mayor-commissioner and a nine-member council. Also, in 1967, District residents won the right to elect a school board. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed legislation authorizing the District a nonvoting member of Congress.
A Home Rule bill passed the Congress in 1973 when segregationist Rep. John McMillan, who chaired the House District of Columbia Committee, lost re-election and Nixon signed the measure. In 1974, District voters elected their first mayor and a 13-member council under Home Rule. Still, statehood remains elusive.
Howard University political science professor Michael Fauntroy’s work, “Home Rule or House Rule: Congress and the Erosion of Local Governance in the District of Columbia,” leads the discourse in documenting the city’s fight for legislative autonomy. He told the Informer in a 2014 interview that while he believed statehood was theoretically still possible, achieving it would require a committed effort by proponents of statehood to inform the nation about how the city currently operates. Fauntroy also said he believed an impassioned desire among residents was required to seize it.
“I think it’s theoretically possible [to gain statehood], though I don’t think there is enough energy in the streets to make it happen. Ultimately you have to scare the members of Congress by un-electing some of them as we saw in 1972 and there is not enough energy to un-elect people in any significant way,” Fauntroy said. “I am probably a little less hopeful now than I was at the time that I wrote Home Rule and this was over a decade ago, in part because I think that the kind of street mobilization that you need is not on the radar of many of the people who need to be in the streets and organizing not just here in the District but around the country to try to get this done. I’m frustrated, very frustrated by that generally.”
Former House Committee on the District of Columbia staffer, Nelson Rimensnyder shared a panel with Fauntroy and The Honorable Sterling Tucker, the first elected City Council chairman, on the 40th anniversary of Home Rule. Citing the 1994 adoption by the D.C. Council of Act 10-222 that states: “No D.C. resident shall be required to make federal income tax payments until such time as the District is granted full representation in both houses of Congress,” Rimensnyder labeled District residents as third-class citizens.
“Some leaders like to go around saying that we are second-class citizens, but in fact, we are third-class citizens because we are behind Puerto Rico and other territories. We are the only Americans taxed without our consent and I think that is the message we have to take to the country and the Congress. We are tired of being taxed without our consent. That is what this country was founded upon – it is in our Declaration of Independence,” Rimensnyder said.