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Blast from the Past: Republicans Supported Washington, D.C., Autonomy

By: Miriam Edelman

During what already is a contentious presidential election year, Americans can and should unite to support local autonomy for Washington, D.C., residents. The United States was established after colonists forced to pay taxes but were denied representation in the British Parliament. American patriots fought in the Revolutionary War in large part to end taxation without representation, their slogan against Britain.


However, centuries later, the U.S. still treats residents of our nation’s Capital in this disgraceful way. Using a phrase that is familiar with many Americans due to the Revolutionary War, D.C. “Taxation Without Representation” or “End Taxation Without Representation” are on some D.C. license plates. D.C.’s residents pay the highest federal taxes per capita and fight in our nation’s wars, but they have only one non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives and no representation at all in the Senate. Since Congress must approve most legislation passed by the D.C. City Council, D.C. residents do not have control over the City’s local issues or any say in regional, national, and international issues. Let’s rectify this situation before the U.S. turns 250 years old in just a few short years.


For long, the U.S. had considered itself to be a model regarding democracy. However, according to a recent Pew Center poll’s result, 65 percent of Americans think that the American democracy needs major reforms and 57 percent of survey respondents think our nation no longer is a model of democracy. The U.S. is the world’s only nation with a representative democratic government that does not give its capital city’s residents any voting representation in its national legislature. We need to finally fix this grave injustice and make America first, not last, in democracies.


Unfortunately, Congressional voting representation and D.C.’s bid for statehood have become very politicized. However, D.C. local rights are actually a civil right, not a partisan, issue, and Republicans understood this point decades ago. As former Congressman Tom Coleman (R-MO) wrote in 2021 in his compelling “DC REPRESENTATION USED TO BE A BIPARTISAN CAUSE. I WAS A HOUSE REPUBLICAN WHO VOTED FOR IT,” “the lack of Republican votes marked the distance the party has traveled over those four decades: from a willingness to consider a question of fundamental fairness on the merits, to no consideration whatsoever.”


This article focuses on Republicans because generally, Democrats support and Republicans oppose D.C. autonomy-related issues. It tries to show that Republicans supported D.C. in years past and thus now again.


Background

Throughout history, there have been multiple efforts at granting D.C. residents at least some Congressional representation, local self-governance, and votes in the electoral college. Over time, the preferred choice for D.C. voting rights activists changed; their current top method is statehood. This section focuses on Congressional representation. Methods of achieving just Congressional representation have come in the following forms: full voting representation in the Senate and the House (via a bill or a Constitutional amendment), Utah/D.C. compromise in the late 2000s (that would have granted D.C. and Utah a vote each in the House but would not have changed the Senate), and semi-retrocession (D.C. residents vote in Maryland’s elections – This options harkens back to between 1790 and 1800, when D.C. residents could vote in the elections of Maryland and Virginia).


Voting representation could also be achieved through D.C. becoming its own state or D.C. joining Maryland. If D.C. became its own state (as 37 states of the nation’s 50 states have done since the U.S. became a country) or joined another state, D.C. would have more power than if it received just Congressional voting representation. In recent years, some Republicans have favored retrocession. As Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS) said in 2021, “If the Democrats want D.C. statehood, make it part of Maryland.” In 2021, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said, “There is a way to ensure that the residents of DC have voting representation in Congress, and that is for DC to become part of Maryland, just as parts of DC became parts of Virginia many years ago,” However, many oppose retrocession of much of D.C.’s land back to Maryland, which along with Virginia gave land to create D.C.


Local D.C. rights had been bipartisan. In addition, sometimes, Republicans led the way on D.C. local autonomy. In 1877, Delegate William Corlett (R-WY) introduced the first resolution to give national representation to D.C. On April 3, 1888,  Senator Henry Blair (R-NH) introduced the first Constitutional amendment that would have granted Congressional representation to D.C. residents. The Republican party was extremely different during the late 1800’s, of course, but Republicans today still pride themselves as the party of President Abraham Lincoln.


Previous Bipartisan Support for Congressional Representation for D.C.

In the past (mainly decades ago but also in the late 2000’s to a limited extent), Democrats and Republicans united in their support for D.C. voting rights. Both Democrats’ and Republicans’ party platforms contained strong support for Washington, D.C. The following statements come from Republican platforms over the past sixty years:

-          1960“Republicans will continue to work for Congressional representation and self-government for the District of Columbia and also support the constitutional amendment [(the 23rd Amendment of 1961)] granting suffrage in national elections.”

-          1968 – “we specifically favor representation in Congress for the District of Columbia”

-          1972 – “We support voting representation for the District of Columbia in the United States Congress and will work for a system of self-government for the city which takes fair account of the needs and interests of both the Federal Government and the citizens of the District of Columbia.”

-          1976 – “We again...support giving the District of Columbia voting representation in the United States Senate and House of Representatives and full home rule over those matters that are purely local.”


Decades ago, Democrats and Republicans were instrumental in granting D.C. home rule (DCNOW’s Trying to End Home Rule blog post discusses this topic) and votes in the electoral college. In the early 1970s, Congress passed the District Home Rule Act, which granted limited home rule to D.C. residents. Republican President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law. When signing this monumental legislation, he said

As a longtime supporter of self-government for the District of Columbia, I am pleased to sign into law a measure which is of historic significance for the citizens of our Nation's Capital. I first voted for home rule as a Member of the House of Representatives in 1948, and I have endorsed the enactment of home rule legislation during both my terms as President.

 

The 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted votes in the electoral college to Washington, D.C. Under this amendment, D.C. would get the same number of electoral college votes as the least-populous state. The amendment states that via legislation, Congress must have the authority to enforce it.


The 23rd amendment was adopted during the early-1960’s civil rights movement (an effort for equality for African-Americans in the U.S.) when African-Americans comprised the majority of D.C. residents. Senator Kenneth Keating (R-NY) introduced the amendment in 1960 and led Congressional efforts for its passage. Passed within months by Congress  during the summer of 1960, this amendment became the second-most quickly ratified Constitutional amendment although only some states ratified this amendment. Many Southern states did not ratify the Amendment. In fact, Tennessee was the only former Confederate state to ratify this bill. However, multiple Republican-led state legislatures in the North ratified this amendment, proving that racial politics were more crucial than partisanship in affecting ratification. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower supported this amendment. On March 29, 1961, the Amendment was ratified, and D.C. gained three votes in the electoral college.


Efforts to acquire Congressional voting representation via a Constitutional amendment have, so far, not been successful. In 1978, Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) introduced the U.S. Senate measure, and both the House and the Senate passed a joint resolution by the requisite two-thirds majority. In the House, while 226 Democrats (77 percent) and 63 Republicans (44 percent) voted for this resolution, 48 Democrats (16 percent) and 79 Republicans (55 percent) voted against it. In the U.S. Senate, while 48 Democrats (79 percent) and 19 Republicans (50 percent) voted for this resolution, 12 Democrats (20 percent) and 19 Republicans (50 percent) voted against it. If just one more Republican Senator had voted against the resolution, that resolution would have not passed. Republican National Chairman Bill Brock supported that amendment. Only 16 states ratified this potential amendment before the deadline expired in 1985. Hence, this amendment fell far short at the state level. It had needed 38 states for ratification.


Over the decades (until the 2020s), prominent people of both political parties supported Congressional voting representation for D.C. residents, although not necessarily statehood. Republicans supporting voting representation, including leading conservatives, consist of:

-          Former Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) – “We simply cannot continue to deny American citizens their right to equal representation in the national government… this basic right is a bedrock of our Republic that cannot be overturned.”

-          Former Senator Francis Case (R-SD) (1954)“The people who live in the District of Columbia live here by their own choice. But at the same time, a country which has long boasted of its origins and of its dedication to the idea that representation should go with taxation, is entitled to express itself freely and participate in national elections.”

-          Former Congressman Tom Coleman (R-MO) (2021) – “For many of us Republicans running for reelection, the vote was not politically convenient: We knew there could be political blowback from our constituents since it was certain our vote would result in the addition of three Democratic members of Congress – one in the House and two in the Senate. But the question was a moral one, pitting political expediency against a straightforward question of equality: Could we, the public servants charged with representing Americans in Congress, deny that same representation to our fellow citizens?”

-          Former Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) (2021) – “Former Congressman Tom Davis: “It’s hard to argue with a straight face that people that fought and died in a half a dozen wars and pay federal income tax shouldn’t have federal representation...If they were voting Republican, they’d be there in a heartbeat.”

-          Former Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) (Republicans’ 1976 Vice Presidential nominee and Republicans’ 1996 Presidential nominee) (1978)“The right to vote and the right to representation is the centerpiece of any democracy - and we can improve our democracy by passing the D.C. representation bill.”

-          President Dwight Eisenhower (1954) – “In the District of Columbia the time is long overdue for granting national suffrage to its citizens and also applying the principle of local self-government to the Nation’s Capital.”

-          Former Senator Garn (R-UT) (1978) – “It is not fair for the people living in the District of Columbia not to be able to vote for Senators and Congressmen and have voting representation in the Congress….This Senator has no problem with the right to representation by the citizens of the District of Columbia. I think it is fair, justified, and I think it should be granted.” – Although he had that view, he opposed the Congressional amendment that would have given Congressional representation to D.C. residents. He supported D.C. residents going back to Maryland.

-          Former Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) (2009)“Representation and suffrage are the heart of our American system of self-government. This principle is so fundamental that there must be affirmative evidence that America's founders intended to deny it to Americans living in the District. That evidence simply does not exist.”

-          Former Representative Jack Kemp (R-NY) (1996 Republican U.S. Vice Presidential nominee) (2007) – “To be indifferent to the aspirations of 572,000 people whose sons and daughters are in harm's way, watching this vote and deny them the democratic vote, to me is shameful. And as Delegate Norton said, it is slanderous to the people of this District.”

-          Former Senator Charles Mathias (1978) – “Regrettably, despite early recognition of the need for such a constitutional amendment; despite the introduction of over 150 resolutions on the subject; despite the holding of more than 20 days of hearings, and above all, despite our Nation's efforts throughout its history to achieve universal suffrage, the citizens of the District of Columbia remain disenfranchised in the Congress of the United States. This can only be viewed as a travesty of justice. This intolerable situation has gone on far too long. It is a national disgrace. It must be finally corrected without further delay.”

-          Current Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (2009) – “I believe the people of the District of Columbia have been without representation in the Congress for too long. I have strongly supported the view that the people of the District should have voting representation in the House of Representatives.” – In 2009, Murkowski introduced the D.C. Voting Rights Constitutional Amendment that would have given D.C. a vote in the House.

-          Former President Richard Nixon (1969) – “It should offend the democratic sense of this nation that the 850,000 citizens of its capital, comprising a population larger than 11 of its states, have no voice in the Congress.”

-          Former Vice President Mike Pence (2007) – “Madam Speaker, I come to the House today to express my support for the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007. I believe after much consideration that this legislation is a constitutional remedy to a historic wrong. Now, while many have focused on the political consequences of such a move, I believe the only question for a Member of Congress on such matters is this: What does justice demand and what does the Constitution permit this Congress to do about it? The fact that more than half a million Americans live in the District of Columbia and are denied a single voting representative in Congress is clearly a historic wrong, and justice demands that it be addressed...” – H.R. 1433 – The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007 was a compromise bill that would have given D.C. and Utah each a vote in the U.S. House, but it would not have provided D.C. any U.S. Senators. This bill had 12 Democratic co-sponsors and six Republican co-sponsors. Its companion bill (S. 1257) had 17 Democratic co-sponsors, two Republican co-sponsors, and one independent co-sponsor. – Pence was a strong conservative when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump chose him as running mate in 2016 D.C. shadow Senator Paul Strauss was optimistic about Pence’s pick as running mate, saying “Pence's willingness to cross party lines on the D.C Voting Rights Act was encouraging. His position on the ticket is helpful because it gives us an opportunity to engage Republicans on the issue of D.C.'s status with more visibility, on a bipartisan basis.”

-          Former Assistant Attorney General (who became Supreme Court Chief Justice) William Rehnquist – “The need for an amendment at this late date in our history is too self-evident for further elaboration; continued denial of voting representation from the District of Columbia can no longer be justified.”

-          Former Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) – “It is just not fair, that in the year 1978, more than 700,000 American citizens do not have the right to elect representatives to Congress. No one in 1790, when the District was created, could have imagined the rapid growth and changes that were to take place in the District of Columbia … The residents of the District of Columbia deserve the right to (full) representation in Congress if for no other reason than simple fairness.”


Traditionally, Republicans have supported D.C.’s status as the federal district and opposed statehood. See the following from Republican Party Platforms:

-          1992 – “We call for closer and responsible Congressional scrutiny of the city...and tighter fiscal restraints over its expenditures. We oppose statehood as inconsistent with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution....”

-          1996 – “We reaffirm the constitutional status of the District of Columbia as the seat of government of the United States and reject calls for statehood for the District.”

-          2000 – “We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution that our nation's capital has a unique status and should remain independent of any individual state.”

-          2004 – “We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution” [This platform had that same section from the 2000 platform.]

-          2008 – “The nation's capital is a special responsibility of the federal government. ... Washington should be made a model city.”

-          2016 – “The nation's capital city is a special responsibility of the federal government because it belongs both to its residents and to all Americans, millions of whom visit it every year. ... We call for Congressional action to enforce the spirit of the Home Rule Act, assuring minority representation in the City Council. That council, backed by the current mayor, is attempting to seize from the Congress its appropriating power over all funding for the District. The illegality of their action mirrors the unacceptable spike in violent crime and murders currently afflicting the city. We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional prerogatives regarding the District.” and “"Statehood for the District can be advanced only by a constitutional amendment. Any other approach would be invalid. A statehood amendment (sic) was soundly rejected by the states when last proposed in 1976 (sic) and should not be revived.” – It is possible that this platform was very anti-D.C. because of the renewed D.C. statehood movement.

In 2020, Republicans did not have a platform. It noted that Republicans continue to support Trump’s America First agenda.


Republicans’ Current Anti-D.C. Views Contradict Their Long-Held Support of State/Local Rights

The current Congress’ (2023-2024) interference in local D.C. affairs, primarily by  Republicans, contradicts Republicans’ traditional support of states’/local rights and sometimes the federal regulation of typical state and local issues (including policing and education). Congress has jurisdiction over the nation’s capital and thus can oversee D.C. However, the current Congress has gone overboard in disrespecting D.C.’s self-governance (especially on traditional local issues, including policing and elections). It prevented D.C.’s crime bill from becoming law in 2023 (DCNOW’s blog’s “Fears-Turned Reality: Congress and the District of Columbia in 2023 So Far” post mentions this major meddling.), and it held multiple hearings relating to crime in D.C. Congressional interference has gotten worse, with some Republicans wanting to dictate how D.C. handles some crime-related matters and to use D.C. as a model for their election laws.       


Partisan Make-Up Should Not/Does Not Make a Difference Regarding Congressional Representation

The fact that DC is a majority Democratic city should not affect its citizens’ right to vote. The 50 states’ political party affiliations vary tremendously, but all states have full Congressional voting representation.


No one says that a certain state (i.e. – very Republican Wyoming or extremely Democratic Massachusetts) should not be represented in Congress due to their citizens’ political party affiliation. Thus, why is D.C.’s mainly Democratic composition such a barrier to voting rights? If D.C. were mainly Republican, its residents still would deserve to be treated the same as other Americans are treated.


D.C. Would Not Necessarily Elect Just Democrats to Congress

Republicans’ main opposition to D.C. statehood is that statehood is power grab by Democrats. As U.S. Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) wrote about a D.C. statehood bill during the past few years, “This legislation violates the 23rd Amendment and is nothing more than a partisan power grab from Speaker Pelosi and her socialist allies to add two more Democrats to the Senate.” In addition, Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT) said in 2021, “This is about politics. This is about getting two solid Democratic members of the Senate. That allows them to pack the Supreme Court, allows them to break the filibuster, allows the Green New Deal, allows a whole bunch of incredibly progressive even radical legislation, and that’s what they’re trying to achieve by this.”


However, if Washington, D.C., is granted voting representation in Congress, it might not necessarily elect only Democrats. States’ residents do not always vote as expected. Alaska joined the U.S. as a Democratic state, and Hawaii joined as a Republican state. However, over the past 50 years, those two states’ citizens’ political affiliations reversed:  Alaska is now mainly Republican and Hawaii, largely Democratic.


In Presidential elections, Alaska generally votes Republican, and Hawaii usually votes Democratic. While Republicans have won Alaska’s electoral college votes in every presidential election since Alaska became a state (except in 1964), Democrats have won Hawaii’s electoral college votes in each presidential election since Hawaii gained statehood (except for in 1972 and 1984 – Disclaimer: Republicans won in large landslide electoral college majorities in those two years. In 1972, President Nixon won reelection by a 520 to 17 to one margin in terms of electoral college votes. The only entities to vote Democratic that year were Massachusetts and D.C. In 1984, Nixon President Ronald Reagan won reelection by a 525 to 13 margin in terms of electoral college votes. The Democrat only won Minnesota and Washington, D.C.). See the below graph:




Alaska tends to vote Republicans to federal offices, and Hawaii usually votes Democrats to such offices. However, the results are different in state races. Since achieving statehood, Alaska has had four Democratic and four Republicans Senators and one Alaska Independent Governor, four Democratic Governors, one Independent Governor, and six Republican Governors. Since becoming a state, Hawaii has elected six Democrats and one Republican to the Senate and has had seven Democratic Governors and two Republican Governors.


D.C. could be like other jurisdictions in which the people of the dominant major party are not always elected to major offices. The following are examples in recent decades of Democrats winning prominent state office in Republican states and Republicans winning such office in Democratic states:

-          Democrats:

o   Mike Beebe (Former Arkansas Governor)

o   Andy Beshear (Current Kentucky Governor)

o   Roy Cooper (Current North Carolina Governor)

o   Laura Kelly (Current Kansas Governor)

o   Dave Freudenthal (Former Wyoming Governor)

o   Brian Schweitzer (Former Montana Governor)

-          Republicans:

o   Charles Baker (Former Massachusetts Governor)

o   Chris Christie (Former New Jersey Governor)

o   Robert Ehrlich, Jr. (Former Maryland Governor)

o   Larry Hogan (Former Maryland Governor)

o   Linda Lingle (Former Hawaii Governor)

o   George Pataki (Former New York Governor)

o   Mitt Romney (Former Massachusetts Governor)

o   M. Jodi Rel (Former Connecticut Governor)


These lists do not include examples of such people winning in non-typical elections. For example, it does not consist of Republican Scott Brown as a U.S. Senator in Democratic Massachusetts because he became U.S. Senator in a special election; his victory could relate to health care, and it ended Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.


A Plurality of Americans Favor D.C. Statehood

Although over time, Americans’ support for D.C. statehood has fluctuated, as of 2021, a plurality of Americans support D.C. statehood. See the below table and graph:

Year

Support

Oppose

No Opinion/Unsure

1989 Gallup 

31%

52%

17%

1992 Yankelovich/Clancy/Shulman

20%

57%

24%

2019 Washington Post

29%

64%

8%

2021 Democracy for All 2021 Action

54%

23%

11%

2022 Economist/YouGov

41%

36%

23%




In 2019, although overall, most Americans supported D.C. statehood, sentiments about this civil rights issue varied by political party identification. See the following table and graph:

Political Party

Support

Oppose

No Opinion

Overall

55%

34%

11%

Democrat

74%

15%

12%

Independent/Third Party

51%

38%

11%

Republican

34%

56%

10%



In 2019, most people in swing states supported D.C. statehood, making it a possible campaign issue. In those states, 57 percent supported, 33 percent opposed, and ten percent did not have an opinion on this topic.


Other salient points from the 2019 poll include:

-          Voters throughout the U.S. supported D.C. statehood.

-          The argument that tends to get support for D.C. statehood among voters from all over the U.S., across the political spectrum, and with different backgrounds was “taxation without representation.” This point connected with 73 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Independents, and 42 percent (the largest segment of support) of Republicans.

-          Most voters support D.C. statehood even when people see the critics’ “power grab” argument. That argument is the Republicans’ main argument against statehood.

-          The racial justice element is salient for Democrats, but not Republicans (although D.C. seemed to have gained electoral college votes at least in part due to concerns about racial justice). While 78 percent of Democrats support D.C. statehood when connected with race, Republicans are the most opposed when this tie is made. According to an unnamed retired moderate House Republican, race has long been a major reason why Republicans oppose statehood. As that former Member of Congress said, “This is outrageous — my fellow party members are opposing it simply because the representatives would be Black and Democratic. If this were a white city… they would all be for it because of the taxation without representation.”


Call to Action

Let’s come together as a nation and support autonomy for D.C. residents. Congress needs to end its continued interference in local D.C. affairs and to grant D.C. statehood. If D.C. were a state, Congress would not be able to continue its current meddling. We can learn from lessons of the 23rd Amendment. For the good of the nation and basic human and civil rights, Republicans should set aside partisan opposition and grant statehood for the District of Columbia, ensuring fairness and justice for D.C. residents.

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