Task Force on District of Columbia Governance
in collaboration with
the Federal City Council
BACKGROUND BRIEFING REPORT
Georgetown University's Graduate Public Policy Institute
This policy briefing report is one of a series of policy seminars supported by Georgetown University's Graduate Public Policy Institute (GPPI).
The GPPI's "D.C. Project" provides faculty and student research resources as a community service to support collaborative efforts addressing the needs of the District of Columbia.
The struggle for political representation has been a long and arduous
one for the residents of the District of Columbia. The struggle began with the
creation of the federal district and has persisted until the present day.
Currently, concerns about political representation and democracy have been
overridden by the fiscal crisis in the District and the appointment of the
Financial Control Board in 1995. Perhaps the solution to political
representation and the fiscal crisis may be intertwined. Perhaps with greater
political autonomy and representation, the interests of the District would be
better served and thus its financial problems would be dealt with more
In 1787, the founders of this country decided to establish a capital district under the control of the federal government. Because of the intense interstate competition, the founders feared that if the capital were under the jurisdiction of any one state that the state could exercise power and authority over federal matters and, consequently, the other states. Article I, section 8, subsection 17, provided that "Congress shall have the power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states and acceptance of the Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States." This wording has come to be known as the "exclusive legislation" clause.
After the federal city had been mandated, its location was determined primarily by political concerns. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State in George Washington's first administration, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, and Richard Bland Lee and Alexander White, Virginia congressmen, arranged a compromise. The Northern Congressmen agreed to the placing of the capital in the South in exchange for the Southern Congressmen's support of federal assumption of state Revolutionary war debts. Congress accepted the plan, officially named The Residence Act of 1790, which gave the president the authority to choose the location of the capital along the Potomac River on land to be ceded by Maryland and Virginia.
With the arrival of the federal government in the new city of Washington, the twin concerns of home rule and representation had to be faced by Congress and the President. The local population was small and it was the opinion of many federal officials that Washington residents should be represented in Congress when the population had increased sufficiently.
In February 1801, Congress decided to allow the elected governments of Georgetown and Alexandria to remain standing, while providing that the city of Washington would be governed directly by Congress. Congressional legislation was passed that called for a mayor appointed by the president and a twelve-member city council empowered to enact laws and impose taxes.
The question of how to handle "state" functions came up from time to time throughout the 1800's. In 1818, President James Monroe called for an elected territorial legislature which Congress declined to act upon. In 1831, President Andrew Jackson contended that the "exclusive legislation" clause of the Constitution did not require that "this people should be deprived of all privileges of self-government." He proposed that the federal District be allowed to elect a representative to Congress and a territorial government but the proposal met with the same result as President Monroe's proposal, with no action by Congress.
In 1862, several months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress ended slavery in the city of Washington while offering remuneration to the slave owners. Two years before Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress initiated universal manhood suffrage in the federal District despite strong local opposition from Washington' s City Council. These were important factors in Washington becoming a magnet for large numbers of newly freed blacks. The tension between the will of the Washington city residents and the will of Congress would reoccur many more times in the federal District's history, with the issue of race frequently being an influential factor.
In 1871, Congress provided for the election of a non-voting delegate to Congress and a territorial government composed of a governor, an upper house, and a Board of Public Works all appointed by the President, and a lower house elected by the voters. In three short years, the territorial government ran up a significant debt and Congress terminated the territorial government and replaced it with a 'temporary' three-member, presidentially appointed commission.
In 1874, a special committee of Congress proposed that Congress employ its "exclusive legislation" clause over the federal District and continue the temporary commissioner form of governance indefinitely. District residents objected and Senator Oliver Morton from Indiana, on outspoken opponent of the plan, said that the commissioner from of governance takes "from the people the right of local self-government." and is "intended to get clear of the Negro vote." In 1878, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1878, making permanent the three presidentially appointed commissioners to govern the District. While many citizens of the District objected to this form of governance as unsatisfactory, the city's business leadership, intent on keeping Washington the capital city and to guarantee an adequate revenue base to fund public improvements, readily traded home rule for federal money.
1870s to 1930s
From the late 1870s to the 1930s, most federal officials were content with direct federal control over the District. Although local groups such as the Board of Trade may have been satisfied, there was agitation for self-governance in this time period by other citizens and citizen groups. The Citizens Committee of One Hundred submitted a "memorial to Congress" expressing their desire that the commissioners be replaced by a locally elected government and reported prevailing disappointment with the appointed government. In 1888, Theodore Noyes, the publisher of the Washington Star, called for a Constitutional Amendment granting District of Columbia residents congressional representation and electoral college votes.
In 1910, the District Suffrage League conducted a local straw poll asking if the people of the District of Columbia should be allowed to vote, and better than a ten to one ratio supported the right to vote. Similarly, in 1938, a Citizens' Conference representing 271 local groups coordinated a plebiscite to assess local feelings on home rule and federal representation, with the results of seven-to-one favoring home rule and thirteen to one favoring federal representation. Between 1938 and 1946, Congress held hearings on home rule and congressional representation, but a preoccupation with the war pre-empted any passage of reform.
!940s to 1960s
In the 1940s, the Democratic party and President Truman adopted District suffrage as part of their national platform for the first time. By the late 1940s, civil rights was developing into the dominant focus of domestic politics and home rule for the District became enmeshed with the national struggle over civil rights. The connection between civil rights and home rule for the District enlarged its base of support while at the same time drawing strong opposition from segregationists, several of whom sat on the House District Committee.
In 1952, President Truman wrote "Not only is the lack of self-government an injustice to the people of the District of Columbia, but it imposes a needless burden on the Congress and it tends to controvert the principles for which this country stands before the world." The Senate showed its support for District home-rule by passing home rule bills five times from 1949 to 1960. However, the House District Committee, under John McMillan of South Carolina, steadfastly opposed home rule and refused to report out a home rule bill.
The District of Columbia did take one step forward in the struggle for political representation during this time period as the Twenty-third Amendment, proposed in 1960, was ratified in 1961. The Twenty-third Amendment gave the District three electoral votes in the Electoral College, equal to that of the least populous state.
In 1967, President Johnson submitted a proposal to Congress, Reorganization No. 3, replacing the commissioners with a single executive head of the District government, a deputy, and a nine-member city council to perform quasi-legislative functions formerly carried out by the Board of Commissioners which Congress passed.
In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon indicated his support for home rule and representation for the District when he stated "the District's citizens should not be expected to pay taxes for a government which they have no part in choosing or to bear the full burdens of citizenship without the full rights of citizenship." President Nixon called for a commission to be assembled to draft a reorganization plan for home rule and the Senate agreed. However, the bill that was approved by the House did not bestow upon the commission the authority to propose a home rule charter, but did allow for the election of a non-voting delegate to Congress. In 1970, Walter Fauntroy was elected to serve as the District's first delegate to Congress in just under a century. The District of Columbia Election Act of 1970, granted the District the same type of non-voting representation as held by Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. These delegates hold the "right of debate, but not of voting."
1970s to 1990s
In 1973, the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental
Reorganization Act passed the House with comfortable margins. The
District's voters approved the partial home-rule charter in 1974, and later that
year, they elected their own local government for the first time since 1874.
Another approach to political representation began to gather momentum when the District City Council and Congress provided for citizen initiatives to be placed on the ballot. The D.C. Statehood Party, organized by civil rights activist, Julius Hobson, placed the D.C. statehood initiative on the 1980 ballot. The majority supported the measure which called for a convention to write a constitution. The voters elected convention delegates in 1981 and narrowly approved the proposed constitution, in 1982, despite several controversial features. Subsequently, the Mayor submitted a petition to Congress that the state of "New Columbia" be admitted to the Union.
The bill to admit the state of New Columbia to the Union did receive some consideration, but was not brought up for full debate and a vote until near the end of the first session of the 103rd Congress in November, 1993. The statehood bill, advocated by District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Representative Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-CA), was defeated by a vote of 277-153 in the House. Supporters viewed the vote as an important political victory because neither the House not the Senate had ever debated D.C. statehood in plenary session before and the votes in favor of the bill were 20 to 30 votes higher than had been expected. Those opposed to New Columbia becoming a state felt that the vote was a serious setback for the cause and believed it would be years before another vote on D.C. statehood came to the House floor.
In 1990, amidst the D.C. statehood initiative, the District City Council voted to proceed with the election of unpaid "shadow" representatives to lobby extensively for statehood (one "shadow" representative and two "shadow" senators). In 1996, the District of Columbia elected Paul Strauss as their "shadow" Senator (Florence Pendleton was re-elected as "shadow" Senator in 1994) and Sabrina Sojourner as their "shadow" Representative.
In early 1993, the District gained a modest step in its political
representation when the District delegate to the House of Representatives was
given the authority to vote in the House Committee of the Whole along with
four territories Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands.
However, any time that the territorial delegates' votes played a decisive role
in the margin of victory of legislation, the vote would be held a second time
and delegates from D.C. and the territories would not be allowed to vote.
Further, the ability to vote was short-lived, as the Republicans, on their first
day of congressional control in January 1995, terminated the District's and
territories' delegates from the official House roster.
A. ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF STATEHOOD
"The primary advantage of statehood over other forms of
representation at the national level is that it would provide District
residents full legal and political rights equal to those of residents of the
existing states. Under statehood, these rights would be automatic and
permanent, rather than subject to reversal when there is a change in
political coalitions and circumstances."
District residents bear all of the burdens of citizenship and are entitled to full representation in Congress, the same as all other U.S. citizens. To accept less is to place D.C. residents as second class citizens.
The District is subjected to "taxation without representation." D.C. residents pay $1.3 billion (1993) annually in federal taxes--higher federal taxes than eight other states. District residents should have a say in the kind and level of federal taxes it pays.
District residents have fought and died for their country without having local representation in Congress to help decide if the war should be fought.
A Sufficient Population
The District population is sufficient for statehood. With an estimated 1996 District population of 554,000, the District's population is within the range of a handful of states including: Alaska (603,000), Vermont (584,000), Wyoming (480,000), and North Dakota (641,000).
The District has had partial self-governance for two decades. The performance of District officials is a separate issue from basic democratic voting rights. Poor performance and corruption have not resulted in residents of other jurisdictions losing representation in Congress.
D.C. statehood does not require a constitutional amendment. It only requires passage in the House and Senate and the President's signature--the way every other state has been admitted.
The District of Columbia is the "federal seat of government" required by the Constitution. New Columbia would be created out of the current District of Columbia, but leave the federal enclave, also known as the National Capital Service Area (NCSA). The Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17) sets a maximum--"not to exceed 10 miles square"-- but no minimum size for the capital of the nation.
Maryland Consent Unnecessary
The size of the federal district has already been changed before in its history, so it can be changed again. In 1846, the House Committee on the District of Columbia decided to give Arlington and Alexandria back to Virginia. Congress passed and the President signed the legislation. Further, the Supreme Court declined the opportunity to overturn the retrocession decision thirty years later.
B. ARGUMENTS AGAINST STATEHOOD
Residents who move to the District of Columbia are aware that they
lose the benefits of statehood. If residents were born in the District of
Columbia, then they could always move elsewhere when they reached
Granting D.C. statehood would be unfair to other cities of equal or
A constitutional amendment is required for New Columbia to enter the Union. Statehood opponents believe that even if a District of Columbia statehood bill were to be approved by Congress, it would be struck down on constitutional grounds.
The Twenty-third Amendment
Consent From Maryland
Various members of Congress have periodically proposed retrocession for Washington, D.C.--giving the city of Washington back to the state of Maryland. Some congressmen and residents argued for retrocession as early as 1803, complaining that the District government deprived residents of their political rights. Moreover, they argued, Congress did not have the time, nor was it qualified, to legislate on local affairs.
Congress did cede Alexandria city and what is presently Arlington back to Virginia in 1846 through a simple legislative act. Alexandria business leaders encouraged retrocession to secure its slave trade and further expand commerce. The retrocession petition also stated that the elected District government was ineffective and undemocratic. After retrocession, Alexandria's residents gained immediate political rights, and its economic prospects improved.
A local movement in the 1930's endorsed retrocession as the quickest way to gain voting rights. This movement led to the introduction of legislation for retrocession in 1939 and again in 1940. About twenty years later, local historian Irving Brant petitioned the President and Congress to cede the bulk of the District to Maryland, but only if Maryland agreed. These proposals received little serious attention.
The idea of retrocession received some attention in 1965, when the Senate passed a home-rule bill and the House District Committee, under the leadership of John McMillan of South Carolina, refused to support it. The Committee proposed a bill for retrocession instead. This proposal was perceived as a move to block the Senate home rule bill, rather than a serious proposal.
Many opponents of the 1979 Voting Rights Amendment supported retrocession as an alternative. Whether they were supporting a politically non-viable proposal in order to continue to deny the full rights of citizenship to the citizens of the District, or sincerely believed retrocession was the best policy for the District is debatable.
In 1990, Maryland's Governor William Donald Schaefer said he would agree to retrocession as long as the federal payment was continued, but few politicians in Maryland or the District were receptive to his offer. As recently as 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested retrocession, to help the District solve its financial difficulties. He also acknowledged the legitimacy of the taxation without representation argument. Current Maryland Governor Parris Glendening is not receptive to this proposal; he responded that the District should be ceded to the 6th Congressional District of Georgia--the Speaker's District.
Throughout history, none of the retrocession initiatives have generated much wide-spread support. Perhaps this was because many of its proponents used it as an argument against statehood and other alternatives for greater autonomy for the District.
The Committee for the Capital City proposes that the federal District be re-defined as the federal enclave, a small and precise territory which was delineated in the Home Rule Act. The enclave includes "the Capitol Grounds (including the Supreme court and the Library of Congress), the Mall down to the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House grounds." The smaller federal District would be ruled by Congress and would maintain any necessary local functions such as a police force and maintenance operations. The remaining portion of the District would be re-incorporated into Maryland. The residents of Washington would become citizens of Maryland with full political rights. Congress and the state of Maryland could implement retrocession through simple legislation. In addition, a referendum would be held to ensure that a majority of District residents supported the move.
Retrocession would give D.C. residents the full rights of citizenship,including voting representation in Congress. As citizens of Maryland, Washington residents would participate in electing the two Maryland Senators and with the addition of its population, would probably add an additional representative to the Maryland delegation in the House. This relationship would be beneficial to D.C. residents who would gain voting rights and to Maryland residents who would gain a greater voice in Congress through the addition of a representative.
By becoming a city within a state, D.C. would benefit from state and federal support and protection. About two-thirds of the functions performed by the District government are state, not local functions. By joining a state, the District would be relieved of the burden of managing these state functions. Maryland has the ability to effectively expand its state functions to serve the residents of Washington. Washington residents "would enjoy the use of Maryland's state facilities, institutions and resources. Access to educational programs, as well as those relating to transportation, crime, prevention and drug enforcement, economic development, health, and the judicial and correctional system would have direct, tangible effects on the lives of D.C. residents."
Retrocession would enhance regional cooperation and streamline redundant services. According to a report by Professor Stephen Fuller of George Mason University, the economies of the District and its suburbs are already inextricably linked. A $1 increase in economic growth in the District causes a $1.50 increase in the suburbs. There is already cooperation between the two governments in transportation, water services, and sewage treatment. Cooperation could be furthered by the District and Baltimore uniting to serve their common urban interests.
Retrocession would relieve Congress of the burdensome responsibility
of supervising the governance of the District. Many politicians and District
officials claim that Congress does not have the time, knowledge, or
experience to maintain a large role in District governance. Congress'
oversight of the District has been neither a mutually beneficial relationship,
nor an effective governing mechanism.
Economically, retrocession would benefit both the District and Maryland. It would "bring business and revenue to the State of Maryland, revitalize the Port of Baltimore and bring to fruition the much discussed but never realized "Washington-Baltimore corridor." It would also improve Maryland's status in competing with other states for jobs, population, and industry.
As a Federal District under the current home rule limitations, the District's economic growth and ability to raise revenue is limited. "The District cannot grow appreciably in population and not at all in area." By joining a larger tax base, the city would no longer have to deal with congressionally-imposed restrictions on its ability to raise revenues. In addition, the District would no longer have to fund "the city, state, and county governmental services it is called upon to provide."
A constitutional amendment is not needed because retrocession could be accomplished through legislation. "The Constitution requires only that there be a District 'not exceeding ten miles square' as the seat of the national government."
Arguments against retrocession come from a variety of sources. The following is a summary of the opponents and their arguments.
Maryland Republicans do not support the addition of a Democrat-majority city to the state.
Opponents in Congress
D.C. Residents and Activists
Many residents resent the idea of retrocession. The citizens of the District approved a statehood initiative in 1980 and ratified a constitution in 1982, and most are not ready to give up on their desire for "sovereignty and autonomy." They feel it forfeits home rule, decreases the political power of the District, and would allow a majority white government to take over a majority black city. The District's former elected shadow senator Reverend Jesse Jackson supported these arguments, and denounced the idea of retrocession when the bill was first introduced in 1990. He claimed retrocession was a "Bantustan" concept, placing a majority black enclave into a white state. He argued that, "retrocession to Maryland would undermine our moral right to self-determination and is, in fact, practically and politically impossible."
Many residents also fear that the District's unique identity would be compromised. "The affinity between the District and its suburban Maryland counties may be strong, but this relationship does not extend to other parts of the state. Both Maryland and the District are justifiably proud of their own historic political communities and boundaries and probably would not be willing to give them up."
Several possibilities exist for allowing voting representation under home rule. Many have criticized these suggestions for failing to address the structural and economic problems created by the present system of governance under the Home Rule Charter. In addition, these proposals don't solve the problem of federal interference in the governance of the District. However, some argue that these proposals are a means to an end. If the District had voting representation in Congress, it might be easier for the District to achieve greater political goals.
One proposal for political representation, termed "semi-retrocession," would allow District residents, under the present government structure, to vote in Maryland's elections for congressional representatives. Under this plan, District residents would elect a full voting delegate to the House of Representatives and would participate in choosing Maryland's senators.
To implement this proposal, an amendment to the constitution would be needed to repeal the Twenty-third Amendment. A bill was introduced proposing semi-retrocession in the 101st congress (1989-90). This proposal was strongly opposed by most District residents and officials. Many claim it would perpetuate federal influence in local affairs. Retrocession also would require Maryland's consent, which is not likely to be forthcoming. However, at least one statehood supporter advocated this bill as "the best intermediate tactical step to full statehood."
The voting rights movement became active in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Full Voting Rights Amendment was proposed in 1978. The amendment proposed that the District would not become a state, but would have full representation in Congress, two senators and a representative. The District would participate in the ratification of amendments to the Constitution and would elect representatives to the electoral college. The amendment won the support of the requisite two-thirds of Congress, and was supported by the Carter administration. The amendment failed when only 16 states ratified it out of the 38 required for passage.
Opponents had a litany of arguments against this amendment. They claimed the founders never intended District residents to have voting rights. Furthermore, they argued that counties in select states that are larger than the District don't have representation, the representatives from the District will favor urban issues, will be Democrats, and will be black. The amendment also failed because many American's perceived the District to be a city of powerful people who already held a disproportionate influence over the national political process.
Proponents of ratification felt this proposal would allow residents of the District full representation in Congress, while not shutting the doors to further political aspirations. Supporters of the amendment said the effort failed in part because of inadequate funds, and also because ratification proponents were unable to launch an "effective nationwide educational campaign."
Another option for voting rights, proposed by local historian Charles
Harris, is a compromise version of the Voting Rights Amendment. The
District could elect one senator rather than two and would still have the other
rights outlined in the Voting Rights Amendment. This version might be
more politically viable in Congress where many members fear the political
influence of the addition of two senators from the District.
The proposals discussed in this paper present several approaches to
rectifying the inherent unfairness of the lack of democracy in the nation's
capital. These proposals all seek to provide for greater rights of citizenship for
the residents of the District. Proponents for each of the proposals are unified
on the position that "the rallying cry of the American Revolution, 'taxation
without representation is tyranny' has paradoxically fallen on deaf ears for
too long in the national seat of power."
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