Hard Won Battles: Territorial Government and Home Rule

In its earliest incarnation in 1802, the local government of the District of Columbia comprised a City Council made up of two popularly elected chambers and a mayor appointed by the President. The local government met inside the Capitol during its first year, and governed several distinct areas carved out from Maryland and Virginia within the newly created federal district: the city of Alexandria, the county of Alexandria, the county of Washington, the city of Georgetown, and the city of Washington. The legal code for the District was a patchwork of preexisting laws from Maryland and Virginia and areas of the District observed different laws, according to their state of origin. A uniform legal code for D.C. was not drawn up until 1861, when Congress established a panel of judges to reform the local code. In the interim, Alexandria (city and county) reverted to Virginia; Georgetown and Washington County, which included Anacostia, were unsuccessful in their attempts to rejoin the state of Maryland. During this period Congress also restructured the D.C. government to eliminate popular elections.

Eventually Congress partially reinstated popular elections, despite the fears connected with the rapid influx of blacks into D.C. and black suffrage, by establishing a territorial government in 1871. Congress provided for a legislature of two houses: the upper house composed of presidential appointees, and the lower house popularly elected. The president appointed the territorial governor as well. The territorial government lasted only three years, but during its brief tenure it included a number of black Anacostia residents: among them, Frederick Douglass was a presidential appointee, his sons served following popular election, and a black Smithsonian clerk and community leader named Solomon Brown beat Henry Naylor, a member of one of the oldest and largest white landholding families in Anacostia, in a popular election. One of the government's driving forces and its Board of Public Works Director, Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, was forced to leave the city following accusations of corruption. Shepherd was later cleared of the charges and is generally credited with many of the important public improvements throughout D.C. in the latter half of the century, filling in the canal, paving streets, planting trees, and improving water and sewer service. Corruption and poor management in other quarters of the government, however, forced the District to declare bankruptcy in 1874. Congress replaced the territorial government with a board of three presidentially appointed Commissioners, responsible to the President and whose legislation had to be approved by the D.C. committees of the House and the Senate.

The D.C. Board of Commissioners governed the District for almost a century afterwards. By the 1960s, residents' agitation for home rule led to Congressional bills calling for the abolition of the current system. Home rule activists called it "the last plantation: a fiefdom ruled by Dixiecrat congressmen who operated in autocratic splendor." (1) D.C. residents finally gained the right to vote in national elections in 1964. A presidentially-appointed mayor and city council replaced the Commissioners in 1967; a popularly elected school board followed a year later. In 1971 D.C. won representation in Congress, albeit nonvoting. "Full" home rule, however, took until 1975, and was won only after bitter clashes with members of Congress. Five times between 1955 and 1965, Representative John McMillan (D-South Carolina and head of the House District Committee) killed bills granting voting rights to D.C. residents. McMillan asserted, "No one seems to object to the work performed by this committee, except the public." (2) To gain home rule, activists had to go to South Carolina and campaign for the defeat of McMillan in the race for his Congressional seat in 1972.

Congress restricted home rule in a number of ways. It retains full authority over the city's budget, even though its subsidies account for only one-seventh of the District's revenue. Federal law bars the city government from taxing commuters, which forces its residents to shoulder one of the highest tax rates in the U.S. Other federal territories which have similarly restricted representation in Congress like Guam, American Samoa and Puerto Rico don't pay federal income tax, but not so in D.C. D.C. residents still lack a vote in Congress. In addition, D.C. has many of the responsibilities normally provided for by state governments, among them prisons, Medicare, courts, welfare, roads, and tax collection.

Disadvantaged from the beginning and poorly managed since then, D.C. is in serious trouble today. Thousands of people have left the city, eroding its tax base; traffic lights remain out of service and mammoth potholes cause four-figure repair costs for automobiles because the government can't pay its bills; a 9% increase in the murder rate (at a time when the rate dropped in most other cities) prompts the head of a D.C. police union to call on the federal government to take over the police department; over 300 children who could be adopted remain in foster care because of unfinished paperwork, upping the average length of stay in D.C. foster care to over two times the national average; and a 47% dropout rate, lack of required certification for 1/3 of city teachers, and a court-mandated closing of 18 city schools due safety hazards have ushered in a retired three star general to head a federally-mandated school reform.

In February 1995 Mayor Marion Barry went public with the D.C. government's financial crisis and the city went into receivership. With $3.5 billion in bonded debt, Wall Street pegged the District's financial rating to junk bond status. In April of the same year, the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the D.C. Control Board) took over. The Control Board is a five member congressionally appointed panel, whose task is to balance the budget in the next three years, and 'trim the fat' through eliminating 10,000 D.C. government jobs. The Control Board has the power to force the dismissal of any D.C. government appointee and can veto any substantial contract issued by the city government, largely a response to graft during the Barry administration(s) in awarding contracts for government services.

Local and federal leaders are busy developing rescue plans. D.C.'s congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton advocated a 15% flat tax (a tax cut) as incentive for residency in the District; Norton also pushed for D.C. residents investing in D.C. to receive an exemption from capital gains tax. Tom Davis, head of the House District Affairs committee and representative of nearby, affluent Fairfax County, supported Norton's proposal, but with strings attached. He complained that D.C. "still has an entitlement/victim mentality" and argued that the city needed to crack down on crime and clean out its own government before it could solve any problems. Davis argued, "Every other jurisdiction is moving away from parole, because 60 percent of crimes are committed by 3 percent of the prisoners. But parole in D.C. is almost automatic, and Barry got a lot of support in the last election by making a play for the votes of offenders' families and friends...the problem now is that the District's reputation is bringing down the whole region." (3)

The Speaker of the House, in remarks made in 1996 at a Heritage Foundation dinner, was energetic in his general desire to help the District, but quite vague on the particulars. "It is time to no longer just complain and gripe and be cynical and be negative, but it is time to have the kind of moral revival that was at the core of Wesley, it was at the core of the anti-slavery movement...the Civil War...the Civil Rights movement...There are enough people that care in this country that we could drown this capital in love and affection and resources and we could find a way to reach out to every family and every child...we ought to have every conservative think tank in the country take on the challenge of designing the plan to save Washington." (4) Gingrich's conservative audience shared his sentiment that D.C.'s problems were best handled federally and nationally. A commentator in The National Review commented, "Statehood for D.C....was all along the cause of liberals who either don't live in the District or who inhabit its more comfortable regions, and for whom the idea held abstract appeal, and the local political types who do live here and believe they would make fine senators and congressmen. All everybody else ever wanted was to live in decent and safe neighborhoods paying bearable tax rates. A few more takeovers, and for the first time in 22 years those people will be running their own city." (5)

Bill Clinton's 1997 plan for the District decreases the local government's scope by transferring the 'state' responsibities to the federal government. It ends the $660 million annual federal subsidy to D.C. and ends congressional oversight of the local government. Clinton also proposes tax breaks for businesses--$95 million worth of tax credits for investors and lendors to D.C. businesses, deductions for business equipment, and tax credits on payroll expenses. Clinton plans to invest $3.9 billion in the area in the next five years, claiming that the District experienced "unfair financial burdens" during home rule (6).

The District is in dire straits. A close examination of the federal government's involvement in the lives of D.C. residents in the past, and of its major plans for D.C.'s future, will help determine how it can be of help.

My Brother's Keeper: The Federal Government in D.C.


1  Erik Wemple, "Democracy's discontent:  Death of Home Rule," _The New Republic_

Jan 20 1997: 20

2  Ibid

3  John Dizard, "Capital offense:  government largesse brought Washington to its

 knees," _National Review_ July 15 1996: 34

4  Ronald D. Elving, "An unlikely champion for the nation's capital," _Congressional

Quarterly Weekly Report_ Dec 7 1996: 3362

5  Matthew Scully, "State hoods," _National Review_ Jan 27 1997: 26

6  Vincent S. Morris, "Leadership for readership; Clintons visit NW grade school, stress urgency

to rebuild District," _The Washington Times_ Feb 22 1997: A1