Nearly 700,000 people live in Washington, D.C., which makes it more populous than at least two of the Union’s states. Unlike the people of Wyoming and Vermont, though, D.C. residents only have a partial form of self-government. But the return of a Republican majority in the House has brought with it the renewed threat that these rights may get chipped away—or one day, perhaps even abolished.
House Republicans introduced measures this week in Congress to overturn two bills recently passed by the D.C. City Council, both of which were passed by the lower chamber on Thursday with 42 Democrats joining the Republicans. While D.C. has had an elected government and the authority to write its own laws since the 1970s, Congress retains the theoretical power to block specific legislative acts during a 30-day review period by passing “disapproval motions” in both chambers and getting the president’s signature on them.
One of the measures targets the district’s bill to overhaul its criminal code for the first time since 1901. Among its many changes are sentence reductions for some offenses and the restoration of jury trials for misdemeanors, which has drawn some criticism from Mayor Muriel Bowser and district law enforcement leaders. Kentucky Representative James Comer, a Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, told The Washington Post that it amounted to a “pro-criminal bill.” The bill’s defenders have noted that there is little evidence that lengthy sentences actually deter criminals.
The other measure that’s drawn the attention of Republicans would expand the right to vote to noncitizens living inside the district for local races, mirroring similar measures in a handful of municipalities across the country. I criticized the proposal last year as the wrong solution to the right problem and disagreed with the idea of creating a second-class form of pseudo-citizenship. For Republican lawmakers, many of whom take phantom fears of voter fraud as an article of faith these days, the misguided bill is seen as an existential threat to the American republic.
If D.C. had full statehood, it would be what Justice Louis Brandeis described as a laboratory of democracy, free to make its own policy decisions and let them stand or fail of their own accord. Voters could then elect new leaders and change course if they were dissatisfied with the outcome. The district and its residents are not so lucky. Their right to self-government is revocable and limited, and Republicans have expressed a willingness to keep it that way.
Georgia Representative Andrew Clyde, who introduced the measure to nullify the criminal code bill, introduced a bill to scrap D.C.’s elected offices last year by citing Covid-19 restrictions on local businesses. “In the near future, we will free Washington, D.C. from the failed experiment of so-called ‘Home Rule,’ and we will return our nation’s capital to the American people after the Democrats’ almost 50-year reign of terror and failed leadership,” his office said in a statement. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s longtime nonvoting delegate, accused Clyde of wanting to “resume running D.C. like a colony.”
In remarks on the House floor this week, Norton condemned the “profoundly undemocratic, paternalistic resolutions” and linked them to the broader fight for D.C. sovereignty. “The Revolutionary War was fought to give consent to the governed and to end taxation without representation,” she said in her speech. “Yet D.C. residents cannot consent to any action taken by Congress, whether on national or D.C. matters, and pay full federal taxes—indeed, D.C. pays more federal taxes per capita than any state and more total federal taxes than 23 states.” She also reiterated her call for full D.C. statehood to resolve this issue once and for all.
D.C. did not have anything resembling self-government for most of its history. As a federal enclave, the district is under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress for basic lawmaking functions. D.C. residents all but forsook their democratic rights while they lived in the city: There were no city council members or mayors to represent them, nor members of Congress to elect, nor even votes in the Electoral College to choose a president. (The Twenty-Third Amendment, which was ratified in 1961, fixed the last of those problems.) Congress and the president instead retained the power to select local officials at their own discretion.
Things began to change in 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that year set off intense rioting across the country, with D.C. one of the epicenters. Heavy destruction in some D.C. neighborhoods brought renewed attention to the city’s unusual situation. Walter Washington, the district’s appointed mayor-commissioner at the time who emerged as a local leader for his handling of the riots, also successfully pressured Congress into giving local government a greater degree of electoral autonomy. That campaign culminated in the passage of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973.
The 1973 law established a City Council with 13 members—one for each of the city’s eight wards and five at-large seats—and a mayor who was directly elected by D.C. voters. Despite their names, the offices also function as a territorial legislature and governor of sorts since the city and the district are virtually identical. The law also placed various limits on what the new local government could and could not tax, contributing to a budget crisis in the 1990s that highlighted the tenuous nature of D.C. self-government. In 1995, Congress imposed a financial control board on the city to oversee its budget and make cuts where it thought it was justified.
D.C. home rule was not always a strictly partisan issue—indeed, it was Richard Nixon who signed the 1973 act into law. But it has taken an increasingly ideological tenor in recent years as more Democrats have embraced the idea of D.C. statehood and more Republicans became vocal about both preventing the district from becoming the fifty-first state, as well as reversing home rule in general. There is an uncomfortable racial aspect to the debate. Until recently, D.C. was a majority-Black city, and its Black residents remain a plurality among the district’s permanent population. (As the nation’s capital, D.C. has a greater proportion of temporary residents and commuters than most other major urban areas.)
In recent years, Republican officials have sought to diminish Black electoral power in their own states or at the federal level to ensure more favorable political landscapes. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, one of the leading GOP prospects for the 2024 presidential race, personally redrew the state’s congressional districts after the 2020 census and effectively eliminated two congressional districts that typically elected Black members to Congress. The Supreme Court is currently weighing a request by Georgia to overturn a Voting Rights Act ruling by a federal court that would require the state to draw a second majority-Black congressional district. North Carolina’s voter-ID law was struck down in 2016 for targeting Black voters with, according to the court that reviewed it, “almost surgical precision.”
I wrote recently about an unfortunate trend among conservative state leaders to strengthen or weaken city and county governments if they agree or disagree with the policy outcomes chosen by those governments. That phenomenon may reach its purest distillation when Congress, a body composed of people who only briefly live in D.C., makes sweeping policy decisions on behalf of nearly 700,000 people who couldn’t vote for them. Democrats in the Senate and President Joe Biden can block Republicans from usurping D.C. residents’ self-government for now. Without full statehood, however, a new GOP president and a full Republican legislative majority could one day end it forever.
* This article has been updated with the latest news.