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Congress vetoing DC’s crime bill is a step in a centuries-long dance

U.S. Capitol Police officers block the way for demonstrators during the protest in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Protestors rallied against a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new District of Columbia laws that would overhaul how the nation’s capital prosecutes and punishes crime. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Last week Congress formally overturned a law passed by the Washington D.C. City Council, rejecting changes to the District’s century-old criminal code. The move was excoriated by some Democrats, including D.C. delegate, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and cited by politicians and media outlets such as Vox as proof of why the District needs statehood.  

This is only the latest manifestation of the complex relationship between the District and the federal government that has existed since the founding of Washington in 1790 and is far from being the most intrusive example of Congress’ power.

The 1973 Home Rule Act gave Congress the final say on D.C. laws as well as oversight of the budget. The legislature has often inserted provisions into D.C. laws but rarely has exercised its right to overturn whole laws. 

In an environment of rising crime throughout the Washington metro area, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 81-14, to reject the council’s criminal code changes, joining an earlier House vote which saw over 30 Democrats join Republicans. Fear that the City Council had watered down penalties for crimes such as carjackings led to the bipartisan vote, but Congress’s decision was made easier by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the original legislation, which was itself overturned by the council.

Bowser, who like all D.C. mayors has steadfastly resisted congressional interference in the city’s affairs, was uncharacteristically silent on the House vote, indicating her tacit support for any means necessary of sinking the council’s criminal code revision. Once President Joe Biden indicated he would not veto a congressional disapproval vote, the council’s measure was doomed to failure.

While Congress’ vote of disapproval has made national headlines, it marks only the fourth time the national legislature has fully rejected a local D.C. measure since home rule. The last incidence was in 1991 when Congress rejected a planned construction project near FBI headquarters that would have exceeded the city’s 110-foot height limit. In the past, though, Congress has intervened far more drastically in Washington’s affairs than it did last week or in 1991. 

As the seat of the federal government, Washington was recognized from its beginning as different from other American cities. The Founding Fathers established it on 100 square miles of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia, the exact location picked by President George Washington. The District originally comprised the ceded territory and three cities: Washington (the federal city), Georgetown and Alexandria, and was divided into two counties.  

From 1791 to 1802, commissioners were appointed to run the city, but during the following 70 years, Washingtonians elected their mayors, as did the residents of Georgetown. While Alexandria was retroceded to Virginia in 1846, Georgetown and Washington were merged in 1871 and given a new territorial government and an appointed governor. Yet just three years later, after a period of urban growth and modernization of the city’s infrastructure under the rule of charismatic “Boss” Alexander Shepherd, the District was mismanaged financially and believed incapable of running its own affairs.   

Now occurred the most intrusive congressional act in Washington’s history, as the legislature essentially took full control of the city in 1874. Gone were the mayors and short-lived governors, replaced by a presidentially appointed three-member Board of Commissioners. In 1878, the new system was made permanent, with one of the commissioners required to be an officer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For the next 95 years, Washington ceased to govern itself.   

The loss of self-government was bitter, but the blow was lessened somewhat by a long-sought victory. As part of the 1878 settlement, Congress at long last formally agreed to meet half the District’s annual budget. For decades, Washingtonians had tried in vain to get Congress to meet its responsibilities for helping fund urban works. Without its own representation in Congress, the District had failed repeatedly in securing federal funds for anything other than U.S. government property. The result was to force the city to raise taxes and float bonds, often to the detriment of residents. 

Throughout the 20th century, as the federal government grew, first during the Great War, then massively during the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, Washington the city was often ignored at the expense of Washington the capital. The demands for statehood went nowhere, but that of home rule slowly gained acceptance as the Civil Rights Movement swept America. By 1967, President Lyndon Johnson decided to end the three-commissioner system and appointed longtime civil servant Walter Washington as mayor-commissioner, supported by an assistant commissioner and an appointed nine-member city council.   

Six years later, as the federal government was consumed by the Watergate scandal and the city struggled to recover from the devastation of the April 1968 riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Congress granted Washington D.C. home rule and relinquished its day-to-day control after nearly a century. In November 1974, the incumbent Washington was elected the first mayor of the District of Columbia, beginning that office’s delicate dance with Congress, a performance repeated over the past weeks. 

Michael Auslin is a historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. 

Tags DC Crime bill District of Columbia home rule Eleanor Holmes Norton George Washington Joe Biden Muriel Bowser Politics of the United States Washington DC Washington DC statehood

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