District of Columbia Home Rule Act
Approved December 24, 1973
Amended through November 19, 1997
Originally published on-line in February of 1999
Click here to view a PDF as amended to 2008
The State of Misgovernment – The New York Times, July 21st, 1992
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The New York Times, July 21st, 1992
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton’s speech to the Democratic Convention gave fresh evidence of how the Federal Government treats Washington, D.C.: like a plantation.
The District’s elected officials have only token power. They can’t pass a budget or even reschedule garbage collection without groveling before Congress. The District has 608,000 people, more than Alaska, Wyoming or Vermont. Yet Representative Norton is denied a vote in the Congress that runs her city. As she told the Democrats, `It is too late in the century for Americans to accept colonial rule at the very seat of government.’
The remedy is to admit the District as the 51st state, as called for in the Democratic platform. Congress can do its part by passing the New Columbia Statehood Admission Act, which Ms. Norton introduced more than a year ago.
The hardships the District of Columbia endures are evident in the annual budget process. Congress can prevent the District from spending even locally raised revenues in ways that citizens see fit. During budget hearings, members of Congress grandstand on municipal issues and meddle with the city’s finances on behalf of special interests. Extortionate threats to hold up budget passage are common.
The need for autonomy was highlighted in a recent encounter between Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Representative Thomas J. Bliley of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the House committee that supervises the District. Mr. Bliley berated Mayor Kelly for what he said was foot-dragging on crime.
He is in no position to criticize. He is currently in court challenging a District law intended to reduce the number of weapons on the streets. The law imposes `strict liability’ for semiautomatic rifles and pistols, allowing victims to recover damages from manufacturers and dealers even though they had nothing to do with gun crimes.
Assault weapons are sold legally in Mr. Bliley’s state. And Virginia is a main source of origin for guns confiscated in the District. Mr. Bliley forced the District’s City Council to repeal the law by threatening to block Federal aid. When voters reinstated the law, Mr. Bliley brought his suit. The suit was dismissed; Mr. Bliley has appealed. In essence, this suit argues that Congress’s control supersedes the right to self-government.
The citizens of Washington, D.C., deserve relief from this kind of imperial arrogance. Statehood is the way to provide it.
Grant D.C. Residents Full Rights – The Oregonian, April 15th, 1992
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The Oregonian, April 15th, 1992
Congress can right an old and grievous wrong in coming weeks. It should pass the District of Columbia statehood bill to grant district residents the same citizenship rights enjoyed by all other Americans.
The measure to create the state of New Columbia recently passed the House District of Columbia Committee. The bill should reach the House floor by late May or June.
While the new state would be–unlike any other–entirely a city, the continued subjugation of district residents to a paternalistic Congress is a travesty of democratic justice.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting representative, points out that Washingtonians not only have fewer rights than those in the 50 states, but fewer rights than those in the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, which at least have local self-governance.
Limited home rule has been a hollow promise. All laws passed by the district’s city council must be approved by Congress. An assualt-weapons referendum overwhelmingly approved by city residents is being challenged by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. The district can’t even change garbage-collection days without clearance on the Hill.
D.C. residents pay U.S. taxes without representation and serve in the military with no voice in choosing those who put their lives at risk.
The unique creation of a city-state has led some opponents to suggest joining most of the district to neighboring Maryland. That, however, runs counter to the will of district residents and those of Maryland.
The district meets three traditional statehood tests: Statehood reflects the will of the people; they have agreed to adhere to a representative form of government; and there are enough people and resources to ensure economic viability.
The district’s 608,000 residents outnumber the populations of three states. D.C. households have an average income of $32,106. The district raises 84 percent of its $3.8 billion budget through income, property and sales taxes.
No compelling argument against statehood has been advanced, and no acceptable alternative has been offered. To continue second-class citizenship for D.C. residents is inconsistent with and offensive to democratic principles. It is unworthy of this republic.
The D.C. Plantation: Freedom Soon? – The New York Times, November 25th, 1991
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New York Times, Nov. 25, 1991
The effort to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., could well become a campaign issue in 1992.
A bill that would admit the District to the Union as New Columbia, the 51st state, was introduced in the Senate on Thursday. And hearings on the House version of the bill saw a welcome burst of enthusiasm. Three Democratic Presidential candidates testified in favor of statehood and others sent messages of support.
That’s as it should be. The District’s treatment is a scandal, albeit one with a long history. The Federal Government runs the city like a plantation, denying it a voting representative in Congress, forbidding it even rudimentary self-rule and limiting severely its ability to raise revenue.
President Bush favors keeping the District on its knees. But Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa testified before Congress that the District deserved to become a full partner in the Union. The three were on the mark.
Washingtonians have long been denied rights that the rest of us take for granted. They weren’t allowed to vote in Presidential elections until 1964. And it was not until the Home Rule Act of 1973 that they could elect a mayor and city council; both had previously been appointed.
The Home Rule Act left the Federal Government’s dictatorial powers intact. Congress can overturn any law the District council passes. A powerful senator can throw some cash to friends by attaching amendments to the city’s budget bill. And one meddlesome Congressman can by himself trigger bearings on any law by simply raising an objection to it.
The Federal Government is not above extortion. Mr. Bush recently vetoed the city budget, forcing the District to ban the use of locally raised tax revenues to furnish abortions for impoverished women. And Congress used similar blackmail to force repeal of a law that made gun dealers and manufacturers liable for injuries from assault weapons. The citizens have reinstated the measure; gun-lobbying senators may yet thwart it. The District’s non-voting representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, spends much of her time fending off odious infringements like these.
Fiscal restrictions abound. The Federal Government’s real estate is exempt from taxation; the city is forbidden to tax the earnings of commuters, most of whom are Federal employees. District officials say these restrictions cause the city to forgo $1.9 billion in revenues per year. Last year the Federal Government paid a paltry $430 million in return. Denied sources of revenue, the city levies some of the highest taxes in the nation.
Those who oppose statehood typically offer weak constitutional arguments against it. It seems fairly clear, however, that Republicans who oppose statehood do so because the District would send two more Democrats to the Senate.
But most Americans understand democracy well. The issue of statehood for the District raises an obvious question: How can we justify championing democracy abroad while inflicting second-class citizenship in the nation’s capital? The answer is obvious, too: We can’t.
Free the Government’s Plantation – The New York Times, October 6th, 1991
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The New York Times, Oct. 6, 1991
Washington, D.C., with a population of 607,000, has more people than Alaska, Wyoming or Vermont. But its elected officials have no real power and the city is denied a voting representative in Congress. The Federal Government treats the District as a colony, controlling local policy on issues ranging from sanitation to abortion and undermining the city’s ability to raise revenues.
Washingtonians deserve self-government no less than other Americans. A bill pending in Congress, H.R. 2482, would admit Washington to the union as New Columbia, the 51st state. The bill deserves attention and a vote of approval in the House. But that won’t happen until languid Democrats schedule hearings. The legislators need to provide more than lip service they’ve given to statehood in recent years. Even if statehood fails, debate could suggest intermediate solutions. The current arrangement is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy.
Washingtonians have suffered long under second-class citizenship. They were first allowed to vote in Presidential elections in 1964. Permission to elect local officials followed slowly: in 1968, the school board; in 1971, a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives; and in 1973, the mayor and the city council.
The Home Rule Act of 1973, which granted limited self-rule, contained dictatorial restrictions. The city cannot so much as reschedule garbage collection without groveling before Congress, which has 30 days in which to disapprove. Nor can the city determine its own budget or set independent policies. President George Bush recently forced the District to disallow the use of local tax revenues to furnish abortions for impoverished women. His weapon: vetoing the city budget. Impoverished victims of rape and incest will be denied a choice available to American women elsewhere.
The Federal presence harms the city fiscally. The District is forbidden to tax nonresidents, many of them Federal workers, who comprise about 60 percent of the work force. Federal properties are also exempt from real estate taxes. The city calculates that all taxing restrictions combined cost it $1.9 billion a year in revenues.
An ill-informed Mr. Bush said last year that he opposed statehood because the city’s funds `come almost exclusively from the Government.’ That’s wrong. The Federal contribution at that time was about 14 percent of the city budget, the Government gave a paltry $430 million in lieu of lost tax revenues. The cost of municipal services provided to the Government is difficult to calculate but potentially worrisome.
Those who oppose statehood often claim that the Constitution forbids creation of a state in the District. That claim is without merit. The Constitution says only that Congress will exercise exclusive legislative control over a seat of Government that does not exceed 10 miles square. A state could be created that reduce the size of the Federal enclave but not eliminate it.
The real objections to statehood are political. When Mr. Bush opposes statehood, he is opposing the creation of two additional Democratic Senators, one of whom would surely be Jesse Jackson, now an unpaid lobbyist, or `shadow senator,’ who represents Washington in the Senate. The Democrats also have acted spinelessly, giving statehood little more than token support.
How can the United States champion democracy abroad while it disenfranchises District citizens who die in wars and pay taxes the same way other Americans do? There is every reason for Democrats to gather courage, convene hearings and then bring the issue to the floor. Sooner or later, Congress will realize it has more important tasks than overseeing schedules for garbage collection.