The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on Wednesday to override a new District of Columbia law overhauling its 100-year-old criminal code, yet another ignominious maneuver in Congress’s long campaign to deny the right of self-government to nearly 700,000 Americans. This latest blow is a bipartisan one too: President Biden, who had previously threatened to veto a congressional override, changed his tune last week, tweeting, “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule—but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections.”
More than a few critics quickly pointed out the flaws with this statement. For one thing, if you only support home rule when you agree with it, you don’t really support home rule. And while Biden is correct that Mayor Muriel Bowser tried to veto the criminal code and was overridden by the D.C. City Council, Bowser nonetheless opposes Congress’s nullification of that law. “Unfortunately, we live with the indignity of limited home rule … in the District of Columbia,” she said on Friday. “We’re taxpaying Americans. We’re in the shadow of the Capitol, but we don’t have two senators. We don’t have a vote.”
Kyla Sommers, a historian who specializes in the district’s political history, noted in 2021 that the city’s demographics have often shaped the battles over its right to self-govern. As the city’s Black population grew in the mid-twentieth century, discussions of D.C. home rule became intertwined with broader clashes about civil rights issues. Sommers noted that support for home rule declined among the city’s white residents as the population growth shifted toward their Black neighbors:
According to those who testified in congressional hearings, many White Washingtonians feared that “if we get home rule, the Negroes will take over the city” and that “minority groups would control local elections here.” In response to a Washington Post survey on Home Rule in 1966, White D.C. residents clearly articulated the racism behind their opposition, saying such things as it “isn’t right that the Nation’s Capital be all colored” and “they don’t have the right education to do the right job” and rejecting the idea “because a colored fellow would be mayor—no other reason.”
Even after the Home Rule Act’s eventual passage in 1973, the threat of congressional intervention remained salient. Congress has not intervened to override a council-passed law since 1991, when it blocked the construction of a building near the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue that would have exceeded the city’s height limit for buildings. But it has taken far greater steps to control the city’s governance. During a fiscal crisis in the 1990s, Congress imposed a financial control board to rectify the city’s budgetary woes under then-Mayor Marion Berry in what was, in practical terms, a partial revocation of home rule.
A sense of paternalism still radiates from some elected officials who not only say that they disagree with the City Council’s decision but also implicitly suggest that its members are unfit to govern. “They reminded me of my teenagers,” Michael D. Brown, one of the two D.C. shadow senators, recently told Politico in reference to the City Council members. “The day after your mom catches you drunk in the living room with a bottle of wine is not the day you should be asking to borrow the car.”