Time to Fight Back Against Attacks on DC Home Rule

It was only two years ago that the House of Representatives, in a bill supported by all Democrats in that chamber (but no Republicans), last voted in favor of the District of Columbia becoming the 51st state. In contrast to 1993 when 105 Democrats opposed statehood in a House vote, full democratic equality for the District has become a Democratic Party priority.

How quickly times and sentiments change. On February 9, 31 House Democrats joined every Republican to shoot down the District’s revision to its criminal code. Then on March 8, 33 Democrats and Democratic-caucusing independents in the Senate joined all Republicans to kill the code by a vote of 81-14.

No Democratic members of the House from Maryland or Virginia voted to overturn the District’s revised code. In the Senate, however, both Democratic members from Virginia — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — voted to overturn the changes, while Marylanders Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen voted no. The list of Democratic senators who voted for the resolution closely tracks the roster of centrist members of the party with a few surprises, such as Ohio progressive Sherrod Brown’s “yes” vote and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock’s “present” vote.

Contrary to some news reports and the demagoguery of many Republicans, the new code didn’t gut enforcement of criminal laws in DC. Rather, the criminal code update, the District’s first since 1901, brought penalties into line with sentences that were actually being handed down by judges. Nevertheless, Republicans and many Democrats — including President Biden, who signed the bill — saw opposition to the new code as a way to show their constituents that they were tough on crime at a time when many types of criminal offenses are on the rise around the country. Republicans blame lax law enforcement by Democratic city and state governments, notwithstanding that the correlation of the crime rate and severity of punishment is weak, at best. (The murder rate, for instance, is rising more in states that tend to vote Republican and hand down harsher penalties.) Nevertheless, GOP politicians saw attacking the criminal code revisions as a way to put the “woke” District in its place and rebuke vocal efforts in the city to “defund” or “abolish” policing, though the revision did neither.

The “resolution of disapproval” is a rarely used tool for Congress to exercise its overlordship of the District and was last used 32 years ago to block construction of a building near the FBI headquarters that was deemed too tall. The more common way for members to overturn DC legislation is through must-pass appropriation bills, and this has been used many times over the half-century of DC’s limited home rule for bans on medical use of marijuana, city benefits for the unmarried partners of DC employees, and a needle exchange program to prevent AIDS, among other issues. Still in effect are bans on using local funds to provide abortions for Medicaid recipients and commercial sales of recreational marijuana.

The DC government itself unwittingly wrote Congress’s talking points in overturning the criminal code when Mayor Muriel Bowser came out against the revisions and vetoed the bill, only to have the DC Council override the veto in a 12-1 vote.

Bowser's complaints about the criminal code — objecting to lower penalties for certain crimes as well as expanding the right to a jury trial for defendants accused of misdemeanors — were amplified by members of Congress who backed the disapproval, and gave Democrats cover to oppose the revisions as well. 

This illustrates the District’s vulnerability in being half self-governed and half federal colony. As is the case with all state and local governments, the sausage-making of legislation can be contentious and reveal ideological and philosophical fault lines. But in all 50 states, once a statute is enacted, the legislative process is finished no matter how much opposition there may have been. In DC, however, anything other than a perfectly unified front gives Congress a wedge with which to intervene while pretending to be the good guy. Bowser, as mayor — like governors across the country — should have the right to oppose legislation without weighing how her actions might ultimately undercut local self-government. 

DC elected officials are united, at least rhetorically, on the need for statehood. At a rally outside Union Station on March 8, the day the Senate passed the resolution of disapproval, a squad of District elected officials, including Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and seven members of the Council (including freshly elected democratic socialists Janeese Lewis George and Zachary Parker), denounced the attack on local self-government. Mayor Bowser was notably absent, perhaps not the crowd’s favorite politician at that moment. The speeches spared none of those who supported the resolution, not even Biden. “I am concerned that the President’s decision to sign the disapproval resolution . . . will only embolden Republicans to interfere in DC’s local affairs,” Norton said. Speakers also criticized Bowser for not engaging with the criminal code until after the revisions were completed.

The demonstrated support for statehood is a step forward from years past when many DC officials were willing to sell the District short of fully equality. In the 1970s, effort was poured into a failed constitutional amendment that would have granted voting representation in both houses of Congress, and in the 2000s a bill calling for a single vote in the House also failed to pass. But even voting representation would not have stopped Congress’s overturning of the criminal code because the provision would remain in the Constitution, giving Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the seat of government. Voting representation in Congress is not enough: the District must have the same control over its own laws that the states do.

Speeches from elected officials are nice but insufficient. It’s time for citizens of the District to enter the fray. When in 1997 Congress stripped the District of most of its governing authority and handed it to the congressionally appointed Control Board, there was a spurt of militancy that included frequent demonstrations, many of them resulting in civil disobedience and arrests. That energy eventually dissipated, but a bit of it could be seen in 16 participants in the March 8 rally who blocked traffic outside the Hart Senate Office Building and were arrested. That spirit is needed again.

DC residents need to get in the faces of members of Congress and let them know the people are ready to fight for their rights, as they did on March 21 when a stream of Washingtonians cycled through the office of Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga) throughout the day. They demanded that Clyde, a ringleader of congressional meddlers into DC’s affairs, either back off or grab a shovel and start filling potholes. A March 23 lobby day on the Hill organized by DC Vote brought about 100 citizens to the halls of Congress to meet with members and their staffs and impress upon them the need to support full democratic rights for the citizens of the nation’s capital. Members of Congress need to understand the hollowness of rhetorical support for the District’s self-government when they then undermine it for political convenience.

DC elected officials also need to be more forceful in pushing back hard against congressional attacks. In addition to Bowser’s passivity on the issue, Council Chair Phil Mendelson gave ammunition to Congress by trying to withdraw the criminal code revision at the last minute, which Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) called “a glaring admission by the council that they knew what they were doing is absolutely wrong.”  There can be disagreement over local policy, but nothing less than a united front when it comes to self-government. 

Remember, this is just the start of the congressional assault on DC self-government.  Members of Congress, emboldened by their tanking of the criminal code revision, are planning to attack District self-rule on other fronts. There is a bill in the House to overturn DC’s policing reforms adopted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The House also passed a bill to block the District’s new law allowing non-citizen residents to vote in local elections, and while the Senate did not act and the law took effect, Republicans are scheming to undo the measure through the appropriations process. On March 29th, the House Oversight Committee held hearings on governance in the District, with the committee’s Republican leadership painting the District as a lawless hellhole unable to govern itself without further congressional intervention.

And down the road: abortion. With Roe v. Wade on the trash heap, Republicans have vowed to overturn the District’s liberal laws on reproductive rights. States have the ability to protect abortion within their borders, but not DC. 

The fight for full democracy for DC has been a long-running affair and will continue for the foreseeable future. It will not reach its conclusion unless DC’s citizens and elected officials unite to bring it about, by any means necessary. 

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