Yes The District of Columbia is the seat of federal power, yet the city’s own residents have less representation in the Capitol than other U.S. citizens. Not only that, the District’s local laws and budgets are more vulnerable to Congressional interference than other jurisdictions.
These days especially, D.C. residents and their elected officials might be wondering what, if anything, they can do to protect local autonomy and local values. To answer that question, it’s first helpful to have an understanding of myth and reality when it comes to the District’s unique status. DC Appleseed has been on the forefront of expanding local autonomy for decades and believes the law is more on the side of the people of D.C. than many realize.
- There’s untapped potential for the District to use the power it already has to its advantage. The Constitution gives Congress the “Power . . . To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District.” But in 1973, Congress delegated much of this power to local D.C. elected officials and voters when it established the current form of government through the Home Rule Act. The purpose of the Act was “to the greatest extent possible, . . . relieve Congress of the burden of legislating upon local District matters.” Accordingly, Congress extended the legislative power “to all rightful subjects of legislation within the District,” subject only to the Constitution and certain limitations enumerated in the Home Rule Act. It’s true that this unique structure creates challenges. But it also creates opportunities for D.C. leaders and D.C. residents to advance and defend policies that reflect local values, and to increase democracy.
- The Framers didn’t intend for Congress to micromanage local D.C. affairs. The reason the Constitution gives Congress authority over D.C. is to protect and insulate the federal government from the local government. As James Madison himself wrote in Federalist No. 43, “a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them.”
- Congress has broadly delegated much of its own authority to the local D.C. government. It has even allowed the Council to amend or repeal acts of Congress that apply exclusively to the District. Courts have construed this provision broadly, and it may hold untapped potential for D.C. asserting greater democracy.
- Yes, Congress can tell D.C. what to do, but it’s not easy. Council acts become law automatically after 30 days, unless their vetoed by a joint resolution of Congress signed by the President. Congress can legislate for the District by passing a law, but this also requires action by the House, Senate, and President. Typically, Congress interferes using the annual appropriations process by attaching “riders” that prohibit the District from spending its own money on certain activities.
- D.C. doesn’t have a special dependence on federal tax dollars. D.C.’s budget is 99% local revenue and federal funds, like Medicaid, available to all states.
- Local D.C. laws are not federal laws. U.S. Attorney prosecutes most local criminal offenses in the District, but that doesn’t render any offense committed in D.C. a federal crime. The Supreme Court also held nearly 50 years ago that questions of D.C. law should be decided by local D.C. courts, not federal courts.
- D.C. isn’t too small to have basic democratic rights. D.C. has a larger population than two states—Vermont and Wyoming—yet lacks a vote in Congress.