District of Columbia home rule

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Background

District of Columbia home rule is a contentious issue in Washington, DC.

The District is, according to the United States Constitution, under the jurisdiction of the United States Congress in "all cases whatsover" (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17). However, at various times in its history, Congress has devolved some of its authority to District residents. The results have been mixed, at best; in the 19th century the District government built a canal where the National Mall now is; in fact the bricks used to build the "Castle" buliding of the Smithsonian Institution were floated down this canal. The District government was later to abandon this expensive project and left the canal to become something of an open sewer; this was one of the reasons cited for abolishing District government at the time and returning to direct Congressional rule.

For much of its existence, the District has been under the oversight of the Senate and House District of Columbia Committees. This system has had its drawbacks. The "District" committees have long been regarded as the least-powerful of all of the Congressional standing committees; there is little interest from constituents "back home" as to whether the District is well-governed or not, and little ability to use a seat on these committees to engage in projects of direct benefit to the Senators' or Members' constituents. In the past, this has made the District committes "dumping grounds" for Senators and Members judged to be unworthy of major assignments or unpopular with their peers or even for violators of party discipline. The most notorious such case may be the placement of former Mississippi Senator Theodore G. Bilbo on the Senate District committee in the 1930s and 1940s, apparently as the place deemed that he could do the least harm. Bilbo's virulent racism and abrasive manner had made him something of a Senate pariah; however inflicting someone of his nature on the District and its increasingly-black population was of course somewhat disastrous for District residents.

In the 1960s small steps were made to allow District residents to have rights somewhat similar to residents of a city in one of the states. The office of mayor became an elected position again, rather than a presidential appointment, and the District Council was allowed more authority. The District also received a non-voting Delegate to Congress, much like a territory. In a development only peripherally related to home rule but still effecting the relationship between District residents and their government, the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, allowing District residents to vote for President. In the 1970s Congress gave the District government more authority. Congress also passed (1978) on to the states for ratification another constitutional amendment (the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment) which would have given the Disrict its own voting members of Congress, making it virtually a state. However, a seven-year time limit was placed on ths amendment, which was subsequently ratified by only a handful of states, far short of the three-quarters (currently 38) required for it to be ratified and the amendment became a moot issue; for that process to begin again would require the amendment to pass Congress again. As it seems likely that all members of Congress which would be elected from the District, at least for the forseeable future, would almost certainly be Democrats, the passage of such an amendment today is considered to be a near-impossibility. In anticipation of the amendment's ratification, in 1980 District voters approved the call of a convention to draft a proposed state constitution, just as territories had in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries had prior to their admission as states. The proposed constitution was ratifed by District voters in 1982 for a new state to be called "New Columbia"; however the failure of the proposed U.S. Constitutional amendement to be ratified by the states made this action essentially meaningless. The District still selects an unrecgonized "shadow Senator" to lobby for its interests in the U.S. Senate, but this arrangement falls well short of genuine voting representationin that body.

However, Congress can devolve as much or as little authority to the District government as it sees fit. Under the mayorality of Marion Berry, things began to change. At first Barry was regarded as a reformer from outside of the older network of District insiders; he had been a civil rights worker, participating in the Nashville sit-ins, widely regarded as models for nonviolent action, while in college, and was largely regarded when first elected as intelligent and articulate. However, in the 1980s under Berry the District government began to grow beyond its ability to tax or Congress' willingness to pay. Conservative members of Congress were outraged, showing that the District had a higher percentage of its residents on the municipal payroll than almost any other city in the U.S., yet services were often compared to those of a Third World country. Crime, already high, skyrocketed even as the infastructure deteriorated. After Berry was caught (his supporters say entrapped) with a prostitute using cocaine, and other events which tended to discredit the District government, Congress decided to exercise its "all cases whatsoever" authority again and impose a fiscal oversight board to take control of the District's finances. The District seems to be on a firmer finaicial footing again, in thanks due to the outstanding relationships which seem to have developed between Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Members of Congress with regard to oversight of and budgeting for the District.

District residents stress that in asking for home rule, they are in no way demanding special rights, but only rights equal to those taken for granted by residents of states – the ability to elect their own leaders who will then be responsible for governing them without outside interference by Congress or anyone else, and to have voting representation in Congress. The current situation has led some to call the District "The Last Colony", home to "Taxation Without Representation" (a motto recently added to the District's automobile license plates, as District residents are subject to the federal income tax just like other U.S. residents). Opponents state that the District has a very poor history with regard to self-government, and that Congress has a constitutionally-mandated resposibility to make sure that the national capital and seat of the federal government is itself well-governed and functions smoothly. As the District residents agitating for home rule are mostly black, and the conservative Congressmen opposing this are almost entirely white, charges of racism with regard to the issue are frequently made.

The future seems likely to continue much like the present, with Congress exercising farily close oversight with regard to the District government in a way it never would with a state, but without the fiscal review board exercising the tight control it did for much of the 1990s. A compromise may even be reached which would allow the District's delegate to Congress to be raised to the status of a full voting member of the U.S. House but still leave the District unrepresented in the Senate, where the Senators are supposed to represent states, which the District is not; most legal experts believe that even this compromise would require a constitutional amendment, which makes its prospects dubious for the partisan reasons cited above. However, the national embarassment which can result from residents of the capital of a representative republic having fewer rights than any of the rest of its citizens may finally cause the situation to be addressed, at least partially.

Synopsis

DC has most of the responsibilities and none of the rights of a State of the United States

  • Citizens subject to federal income taxes
  • Citizens subject to selective service registration
  • No voting representation in the House of Representatives (just nonvoting delegate, same as territories get)
  • No senators

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