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Trying to End Home Rule

By Miriam Edelman

This post is another follow-up to prior pieces on the blog of the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women of earlier this year on Congressional interference against the nation’s capital. This anti-D.C. work continues.

 

Not surprisingly, some Republicans officially are trying to end home rule. Repealing home rule would be detrimental to D.C.’s local autonomy (although the U.S. Congress must approve most legislation passed by the D.C. government).

 

Pre-home rule, D.C. had been governed in a variety of ways. Between 1820 and 1870, D.C. residents could elect a mayor and a legislative body. In 1874, a three-member Board of Commissioners, who the U.S. President appointed, replaced D.C.’s elected officials. Some Members of Congress wanted to let D.C. residents elect local government officials. However, southern Democrats and conservative Republicans believed that the Constitution enabled them to govern D.C. and that D.C.’s majority African-American population could not participate in self-government.

 

The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allowed African-Americans in the South to register to vote, changed views. Home rule became a civil rights issue. Walter Fauntroy, who was chosen in 1971 to be D.C.’s first non-voting Congressional delegate, used the civil rights movement to gain support for a D.C. home rule bill. In 1972, U.S. Representative John McMillan (D-SC), who had ruled D.C. from the House District Committee and who refused to consider D.C. home rule legislation, lost reelection. Representative Charles Diggs (D-MI) gained control of the House District Committee, which later passed D.C. home rule legislation.

 

The District Home Rule Act, which Congress passed and which Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law in December 1973, granted limited home rule to D.C. residents. This law created the most expanded self-government since D.C. became the U.S.’s capital. In the fall of 1974, D.C. residents elected a Mayor and the D.C. Council. D.C. government also consists of elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. Under Home Rule, Congress must approve D.C. government-passed legislation (even preventing it from becoming law, as it did earlier this year with D.C.’s crime bill – as was described in the Fears-Turned Reality: Congress and the District of Columbia in 2023 So Far article of this blog). The U.S. President appoints D.C. judges. The District of Columbia Home Rule Act (Public Law 93-198; 87 Stat. 774) (D.C. Official Code ' 1-201.01 et seq.) (as enacted by Congress in December 1973 and amended through July 18, 2012) (with annotations by the Office of General Counsel) is on https://dccouncil.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Home%20Rule%20Act%202013%20(2-11-14).pdf.

 

For decades, Republicans threatened home rule. In the 1990s, Republicans threatened to repeal home rule. In 1995 during the Democratic Clinton Administration (serving with a Republican-led Congress), responding to D.C.’s major financial crisis (D.C.’s debt was $722 million and did not show signs of decreasing.), the federal government took power from D.C.’s local government. The District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 created the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, otherwise known as the Financial Control Board. That board was assigned to oversee D.C.’s budgetary parts. It was given the power “to override decisions by Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia,” thus pausing D.C.’s limited home rule. From 1995 to 2001, city officials lost control of day-to-day management of many D.C. roles to a five-member panel, members of whom were federally appointed. That law also created the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), who is nominated by the Mayor, approved by the D.C. Council, and then reviewed by Congress. The CFO manages D.C. finances. In 1997, Congress passed the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act (Revitalization Act), which changed D.C.’s finances. In August 1997, Congress and President Bill Clinton increased the power of the financial control board to almost every part of D.C. government. Since provisions of the 1995 law had been met, the control period ended on September 30, 2001. In 2022, Representative Clyde (R-GA) made threats regarding D.C. home rule, as was discussed in the “Fears-Turned Reality: Congress and the District of Columbia in 2023 So Far” blog piece.

 

On August 11, 2023, Representative Andrew Ogles (R-TN) introduced H.R. 5195 – Seat of Government Act. This bill has two cosponsors, both of whom are Republican. This bill marks the most extreme Republican effort to interfere with the nation’s capital. This bill is extremely short:

“118th CONGRESS

1st Session

H. R. 5195

 

To repeal the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.

 

IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

August 11, 2023

Mr. Ogles (for himself, Mr. Donalds, and Mr. Rosendale) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, and in addition to the Committee on Rules, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned

 

A BILL

To repeal the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.

 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

 

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

 

This Act may be cited as the “Seat of Government Act”.

 

SEC. 2. REPEAL OF DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA HOME RULE ACT.

 

The District of Columbia Home Rule Act (sec. 1–201.01 et seq., D.C. Official Code) is hereby repealed.”

 

Representative Ogles states crime as the reason for the legislation. In a statement, he said: 

The Constitution places the authority and responsibility of DC administration with the Congress — not with a DC Mayor or a DC City Council. Congress needs to reclaim its Constitutional authority and make our Nation’s capital safe again, which is why I’m introducing the Seat of Government Act to repeal the DC Home Rule Act.

 

This legislation does not state what would replace D.C.’s elected government. Would D.C. be governed the way it was before home rule? Who really knows? Repealing home rule would mean that Members of Congress, who do not have constituents in D.C., would run the nation’s capital. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Director of Structural Democracy Michael Thorning questions how many Members of Congress would like to do this work if D.C. home rule is repealed. He said, “At the moment, given the dysfunction in Congress, I don’t think it’s difficult to foresee that Congress would struggle as much — if not more — with trying to administer a local city government as it does trying to govern the entire nation.”

           

Local D.C. officials oppose this bill. D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson’s first reaction was, “The gentleman hasn’t a clue how to run the District of Columbia.” He also said, “And the notion that Congress is ready to go back 50 years, when it wasn’t running the city well then, is fantasy.” Delegate Norton does not think that this bill will become law. This bill does not surprise her, as Republicans have been trying to block some D.C.’s policies in 2023. She tweeted, “Repealing the Home Rule Act would be as undemocratic as abolishing Nashville’s gov't, a city he represents.”

 

Others also seem to think that this bill will not pass. Chris Myers Asch, coauthor of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” remarked, “You would also take away the neighborhood commissions, which have been a great vehicle for citizen activism on the ground. You would take D.C. residents out of the political game entirely and thrust them onto the sidelines.” He referred to this bill as a “political gimmick.” Likewise, Casey Burgat, a professor and Legislative Affairs Program Director at the George Washington University, said the following about this simple bill, “I’ve seen other one-sentence bills, but they’re mostly renaming post offices or congratulating national champions for their season, that kind of stuff.” and “The simplicity here is a red flag. There’s no intention of this actually becoming law.” He referred this bill as a “message bill,” legislation that is not supposed to be enacted or the subject of a vote.

 

Rep. Ogles has introduced other legislation regarding the District of Columbia. On June 15, 2023, he introduced “H.R.4181 - To designate the area between the intersections of International Drive, Northwest and Van Ness Street, Northwest and International Drive, Northwest and International Place, Northwest in Washington, District of Columbia, as "Tiananmen Square Memorial Boulevard", and for other purposes. This bill, which would rename the street in front of China’s embassy in the District of Columbia, was introduced soon after the 34th anniversary after the Tiananmen Square protests/killings. This legislation has 18 co-sponsors, all of whom are Republican.

 

Protect home rule. District of Columbia residents should maintain its right to elect their local government. Contact your Members of Congress.

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