D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined Target executives to welcome two small-format Target stores opening in the District of Columbia in April 2019. Photo credit: Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser

GOP plans to revoke Washington, D.C. home rule

7 mins read

Many Washington, D.C. residents refer to their city’s status as “The Last Colony,” because of its inability to enjoy complete autonomy as a self-governing District—albeit at the hands of U.S. Congress. To prevent a “Democratic takeover,” the GOP wants to keep it that way.

Republicans anticipate a landslide victory following the November midterm elections. If they capture the majority Senate vote, as many suspect, one of their immediate plans would be ending home rule in Washington, D.C. The action will result in preventing the city from electing its own council, mayor, and passing local laws.

Leading the charge to revoke home rule is Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) who compared the January 6, 2021 mob uprising in the U.S. Capitol to “a normal tourist visit.” In an interview with The Daily Caller, Rep. Clyde claimed the District was unable to govern itself. “Beyond the conventional concerns, D.C.’s unseemly and declining status proves its leaders are unfit to properly maintain our nation’s capital,” he argued while citing displaced people living in tents on the streets, and an increase in violent crime.

Rep. Clyde charged that calls for D.C. to become the 51st state of the U.S. is “politically motivated” by the left “and [a] wholly unconstitutional proposal that would revolutionize the balance of power in Congress.” For him the result would “consolidate Democrats’ control over Americans’ lives.” 

Part of the congressman’s gripe stems from his disagreement with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s masking and vaccination mandates to halt the spread of COVID-19. Incensed by her regulations, Republicans argued that they violated Americans’ rights to choose. Bowser ended requirements on February 16, as new cases appeared to wane.   

In response to the chance that the District will lose its status, D.C. House of Representatives Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) believes the repeal of the Home Rule Act would render residents powerless and voiceless again. 

“I have not seen a threat like this since I became a member of Congress,” Norton explained. “Every single Congress, I have had to beat back their efforts to overturn legislation that the District passes. That’s become fun and games for them. But I can’t remember having to beat back an attack on home rule itself.” 

Mayor Bowser has yet to comment on the proposed bill nor has her press secretary and director of communications returned repeated calls from Ark Republic.

Mayor Muriel Bowser broke ground on new housing at the Parks at Walter Reed in March 2019. D.C. House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton speaking at groundbreaking of The Brooks and Vale Buildings, two new housing developments that delivered 390 new market-rate and affordable housing units and the first new construction on the historic Walter Reed campus. Photo credit: Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser

Fear of a  Black government 

What the GOP actually opposes is a city with a sizable Black population controlling its day-to-day operations.  Such an objection isn’t new. According to historian Chris Meyers Asch, post-Civil War conservative whites feared that Black voters—about 30 percent of the District’s voting population—would hold the balance of power in any election, as whites were evenly split between both parties. To stymie Black people from voting and holding office, Asch said conservative whites were willing to strip the District’s white residents’ political power. 

Reading from an 1878 Washington Post editorial, the scholar pointed out that the predominantly Black District was described as an “alien” government. Later in the opinion piece, the author warned that the “system . .  gives control of the district to ignorant and depraved negroes is still worse.” The scare tactic proved to be effective because elections were abolished. 

From 1874 to 1965, a Board of Commissioners composed of three men, all of them white, ruled the District.  Moreover, voters could not participate in presidential elections until 1963. 

Until 1973, every time a few sympathetic members of Congress passed legislation to grant limited home rule to the District, a coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans would block them. Like their forebears, they believed Black people were not capable of self-government, thus, the Commissioners’ power to govern D.C. was Constitutionally protected.

The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was the impetus for District home rule. Michael Fauntroy, a political scientist, explained “home rule became a civil rights question: why is this majority Black city not allowed to have the political autonomy that it should relative to the rest of the country?”

Fauntroy’s uncle, Walter Fauntroy, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s District representatives in the Civil Rights Movement, persuaded Congress members, many of whom depended on significant Black voter turnout to win elections, to support District home rule. He became D.C.’s first Delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives when it finally obtained home rule in 1973. District residents elected Fauntroy, as well as a local mayor and council, but its laws were still approved or rejected by Congress.

D.C. statehood

As home rule does not give the District complete political autonomy, District residents are supporting statehood as the ultimate path to empowerment.  H.R. 51, a measure granting statehood to D.C., passed the House in April 2021 by a vote of 216 to 208. The bill was forwarded to the Senate, where Republicans refused to consider it.

Also rankling the GOP, is the D.C. government’s attempts to pass progressive and liberal legislation. Such bills would be funded through the District’s own budget. However, true to the party’s “culture wars” strategy, Republicans have portrayed D.C. measures as “leftist.”

An example of the right being on the wrong side of policy was in its efforts to shut down the District’s attempt to institute a clean needles program in 1998. The program’s plans provided intravenous drug users sterilized hypodermic needles to prevent or reduce the  transmission of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C through reused, contaminated hypodermic needles. Congressional Republicans blocked D.C. government legislation then banned, and eventually withheld the District’s use of its own funds to support the initiative.

Appealing to conservative supporters, GOP lawmakers characterized the program as a backdoor means for legalizing drugs, boosting intravenous drug use, and ultimately increasing crime. Although President George W. Bush signed an omnibus spending bill ending the ban in 2001, in 2011, the GOP-majority Congress reimposed it.

In response, the D.C. government argued that the program was crucial in decreasing HIV/AIDS cases. Its report said the District had the highest HIV/AIDS rate of all U.S.cities. Naomi Long, director of the Washington Metro office for the Drug Policy Alliance, chided Republicans for continuing the ban “at a time when the District is suffering from an HIV/AIDS crisis.”

In January 2016, Congress lifted the halt of federal funding on clean needle programs, including the District’s.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) agreed to the legislation because of a spike of heroin use in Indiana and nationally, causing what they called an epidemic and health crisis.    

Fear of More Democrats

Overall, the GOP’s apprehension of a Democratic-controlled Congress centers their resistance to D.C. becoming a state. According to the D.C. Board of Elections, 76 percent of the District’s registered voters are Democrats, and 5 percent of its registered voters are Republicans. If the District became a state, the Senate would gain two seats, and the House, one seat, with the high possibility of them being Democratic. Ultimately, the balance of power would shift—or at the very least, go Black and never come back.

Becoming a state is the best option for the District, said Dr. Clarence Lusane, a full professor in political science at Howard University. Under limited home rule, the District has no electoral autonomy. “How is this fair?” Dr. Lusane asked in an interview with Ark Republic. “We pay taxes like everybody else. But D.C. residents are denied their constitutional rights that other people in this country have.” 

Because of the District’s precarious political position, residents “are absolutely cut out of the most important decisions made in Congress and supported by the President,” Dr. Lusane argued.

According to the professor, the District could achieve statehood “piece by piece.” Dr. Lusane opined, “Congress could vote to give the District voting representatives in the House and the Senate.” 

There’s still a debate over whether Congress could grant statehood in a vote. However, some say the District could only become a state if each state would vote to ratify the Constitution. “The U.S. is politically divided,” said Dr. Lusane who explained that the Democrats would be an underdog in a legislative ballot requiring two-thirds to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment. “A majority of states have Republican governors. Republicans hold the majority of the seats in states’ Houses and Senates, or they have both Republican governors and legislatures.” 

On the other hand, Dr. Lusane called Democrats’ support for D.C. statehood “lip service.” He said, “It’s morally correct [to champion it], but politically toxic” due to the anticipated Republican backlash. ‘’The Democrats aren’t ‘going to the mat’ on this issue,” he observed.

While the District gets no love in the U.S., statehood has international supporters. The nonprofit, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), a human rights group giving voice to marginalized ethnic groups and nations, also backs District statehood.  “It remains an anachronistic anomaly that 700,000 American citizens, many of whom are taxpayers, are denied a right to have representation and administer most of their city’s affairs in the world’s leading superpower and democracy,” reads a UNPO statement.

Back home, with all of the political hoopla surrounding Rep. Clyde, he has yet to introduce his bill to repeal D.C. home rule, nor has given any indication regarding when he plans to do so. But never fear, he wrote in a news release, he is “actively working” on the legislation.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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