February 12, 2014 | by Jim Graham
D.C. must have representation in Congress
State of the Union, 2014, Barack Obama, United States House of Representatives, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

We must have our votes in Congress. But as we all work to that goal, our local government has more power than many realize. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

I serve on one of the most powerful elected legislative bodies in the nation. I am a member of the D.C. Council.

Whoa, hold on, I hear you say, how can that be when every law passed by the Council must go to, and may be changed by, Congress at will? And by a Congress where D.C. lacks any voting representation.

To be sure, D.C. statehood is one of the last remaining great human rights violations in the USA. Our city is entitled to full voting representation in the House and Senate and for that there can be no substitute.

Yet, in direct consequence of the congressional role, there is a widely held view that the D.C. government has little power.

On closer examination, that is far from the case.

D.C. may be the most unique political jurisdiction in the U.S. And since Home Rule was established on Dec. 24, 1973 — a 40th anniversary that went largely unnoticed — the D.C. government incorporates city, county and state functions. Thus, for example, motor vehicles, transportation and public works — functions that usually are not within the power of city/county government — are under our government.

Moreover, except for Nebraska, D.C. is the only unicameral state legislature in the U.S. And Nebraska’s single house has 49 members in contrast to D.C.’s 13. In our unicameral legislature, a law can be passed with the support of only seven votes and the signature of the mayor.

But what about this congressional review, where a D.C. law must lay over for 30 legislative days?

True enough. But how often do D.C. laws simply lay over in Congress without action or interference by them?

Almost always is the answer. Even though the heavy boot of a Congress where we have no vote is constantly hanging over the heads of District residents, Congress has used this authority only on rare occasions over the last 40 years — indeed only three times over the last 40 years — and not since 1991. In recent times, Congress has taken no action to disturb what in earlier times would have been viewed as enticing political targets — smoke-free workplaces and marriage equality come immediately to mind.

And D.C.’s congressional review is nothing like what many cities and counties must go through in order to take certain actions. In Virginia or New York, operating under what is known as the “Dillon Rule,” local government may only pass certain laws as expressly allowed by the state legislature. For example, in order for Mayor Bloomberg in New York City to gain control over the NYC public schools laws had to be introduced and passed in Albany in both houses and then signed by the governor. Mayor Fenty needed but seven Council members in D.C. to do about the same thing.

Congress also has the authority to impose restrictions on the District’s ability to raise funds, such as the congressional prohibition of a commuter tax, and override initiatives approved by District residents through referendum. But here again, the authority is increasingly not used. For example, prohibition on needle exchange and medical marijuana funding — both imposed in FY1998 — were lifted in recent years. Only the restriction on spending on abortions remains.

So too, Congress may use the District as a “laboratory” for its own initiatives that they think would be “popular back home.” Federal funding for opportunity scholarships for private schools and various actions related to charter schools are examples.

Forty years into the history of this relatively young government and we have accomplished a lot. The District’s legislature — among the most progressive in social policy in the country — also oversees one of the strongest economies in the country today. We must have our votes in Congress. But as we all work to that goal, our local government has more power than many realize.

4 Comments
  • Sorry, Jim, I call BS. All of that Power which may have gone to your head could disappear by nightfall if other people’s representatives thought it should happen.

  • A huge barrier to Congress allowing representation and rolling back oversight is the long history of questionable personal and professional behavior demonstrated by DC government. The successes that Mr. Graham writes about have been tarnished with far too many ethical and criminal lapses.

    We can’t pretend that in the same four decades, far too many DC elected and appointed officials have yet to develop the ability to discern what is ethical and comport themselves appropriately. Mr. Graham serving as an example based on his recent censure. To think that this does not diminish congressional support toward self-rule is naive.

    It’s true DC doesn’t have a money problem. It has a trust problem.

  • I personally believe that DC shouldn’t have representation in Congress. The founding fathers created a federal city to be under complete control of the federal government, so that no state would be unequally favored by the federal government. What people forget is that DC isn’t owned by the DC council. Every state takes a share of the federal city making it neutral territory in the US. If anyone thinks that Congress would ever give DC statehood and defy the founders wishes, they are crazy. However unequal representation is a problem. I think the DC Council should work with Congress on eliminating federal taxes in DC. I think Congress would get on board with this more easily than they would get on board with statehood, and my taxes get lowered. A win-win in my opinion.

  • @I’m jJust Sayin’
    The problem is that similarly bad personal and professional behavior in other parts of the country does not have a similar effect on the representation and oversight of their citizenry (nor should it). Ethical and criminal lapses in other parts of the country do not result in suspension of the right of their citizens to participate in the selection of a majority consensus government under which they agree to be governed. The First Principal known as Consent of the Governed is the absolute bedrock of our system or participatory government. Governments not based on this principle (and the government of DC is not) are illegitimate, by definition based upon a Tyranny.

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