Republicans in Congress, apparently having solved the rest of America’s problems, are focusing their energies on how the District of Columbia runs its municipal affairs.
Led by GOP members but bringing along a shocking number of Democrats as well as President Biden, Congress overturned the District’s revision of its criminal code last March. The new code, adopted at the end of a deliberative and inclusive process, largely brought penalties into line with those courts were actually meting out. But these fixes were seized upon by conservatives as being “soft on crime.”
That was only the beginning. The House, emboldened by the trashing of the criminal code, tried to throw out a DC police reform bill aimed at curbing violent policing. The DC bill hardly went as far as police-reform advocates wanted, but even this moderate measure was disapproved by both houses of Congress with some Democrats going along. Fortunately, this time President Biden stuck by his professed pro-democracy principles and vetoed the bill.
Nevertheless, Republicans were not deterred, and teed up a new series of attacks on DC’s self-governance:
The attacks on DC self-government are the most virulent since the 1990s when Congress imposed a control board on the District and largely suspended home rule for several years.
It would be difficult to get such granular and mostly petty bills through Congress and signed by the President as stand-alone legislation, which is why House Republicans are attaching the measures to the must-pass DC appropriations bill. For the half-century of DC’s limited home rule, this has been the favored method for cramming unwanted policies down the District’s throat.
If any of these measures pass they would join a long list of restrictions and mandates that came into being as budget riders, including prohibiting marijuana sales, banning DC from paying for abortions for poor women, and prohibiting the District from using federal funds for clean-needle exchange programs (and for years during the height of the AIDS crisis, DC was barred from using even its own local funds for needle exchanges, which helped make it a hotspot for HIV transmission).
And down the road: voter suppression.
DC is specifically targeted in the so-called “American Confidence in Elections Act.” The Republican-hatched effort to keep the wrong voters away from the polls would have limited effect in the states, which have control over their own voting laws, but would make voting harder in DC, which Congress has the authority to jerk around. As reported in the Washington Post, the bill would force people voting in person to present identification, which DC law does not currently require; prohibit DC from sending unsolicited mail-in ballots to all registered voters; ban same-day registration; add restrictions on the use of drop boxes; and ban noncitizen voting, which is slated to begin in DC local elections starting in 2024.
Republicans surely have no illusions that suppressing the vote in DC would lead to GOP victories here, as the local party is tiny and feckless. But it could act as a model that Republicans in red or purple states could adopt, and it allows members of Congress to crow to voters back home about how they beat down on the hopelessly “woke” District.
The movement for DC statehood, which would put DC on equal footing with the 50 states and boot Congress out of micromanaging local affairs, has ebbed and flowed since it first gained momentum in the 1970s. Many years in which the movement was stuck in the mud ended when the House passed bills in both 2020 and 2021 to grant statehood. However, statehood went nowhere in a divided Senate, and now even the limited home rule the District won a half-century ago is under assault.
It is important not to confuse the District’s legitimate desire for equal rights with the substance of policies its government adopts. The DC government, like all governments, can and will pass laws that many people object to. For instance, not everyone is happy with traffic enforcement cameras, which can be seen as intrusive and an example of over-enforcement. But the democratic way to get rid of them is to petition DC councilmembers and the mayor, and if they don’t listen to vote them out at the next election.
Congress’s involvement in strictly local matters is undemocratic colonialism. It is damaging to DC’s quest for full democratic rights for local activists to conspire with Congress to undercut local government, as some did in the overturning of the criminal code. This allows members of Congress to say they are acting on behalf of local citizens when they are doing the opposite.
The movement for DC statehood is an active but polite one. DC Vote, the flagship local organization, lobbies, holds rallies and issues statements. But militance is lacking.
During a March 7 rally near the Capitol there was a mild protest that involved civil disobedience and a number of arrests, but following this it was back to business as usual. During the full-scale congressional assault on DC in the late 1990s and early 2000s there were frequent provocative demonstrations against congressional rule that led to arrests of activists, reminiscent of civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, but these eventually ran out of steam.
Clearly the current campaign for DC statehood is not working. It should be a cause that animates supporters of democracy not only in DC, but around the country and the world. It will require a greater commitment than at present, more resources and energy, more putting bodies on the line. Do citizens of DC have the will to make that happen?