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Mark David Richards
The Role of Presidents in Local DC History
February 16, 2009




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The Role of Presidents in Local DC History:
The District Needs a Champion in the White House

Qui tacet consentire videtur: silence = consent

Mark David Richards

Presidents have been advocates and adversaries for the permanent residents of Washington, DC, since it was founded by our first president as a national stage to embody American democracy. But most presidents have passively consented to the District’s disenfranchised status.

For more than 200 years, DC citizens have sat on the sidelines, paying full federal and “state” taxes and performing all the duties of citizenship, but with no vote in their national legislature. All the while they’ve done without local legislative, budgetary, or judicial autonomy. Even today, the president submits the District’s local taxpayer-collected “state” budget to Congress for review, modification, and approval as a “federal appropriation”; and selects its Superior Court and Court of Appeals judges for Senate confirmation. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia is unique in that it also acts as DC’s local District Attorney (D.A.). Congress frequently adds “riders” to the District’s budget bill to overrule local decision-making, often prohibiting the use of local tax dollars for local priorities and muzzling the local government on “touchy” subjects, such as DC statehood or equal rights. The president has the authority to veto budget bills with such riders.

Although the founding fathers gave Congress exclusive legislative authority in all cases whatsoever over its seat of government in the Constitution, primarily for security reasons, the record shows they expected DC citizens to have local self-government and federal representation. And DC has made some progress over two centuries.

President George Washington established the District of Columbia. He died eleven days after President John Adams announced the seat of government was ready for the nation’s 131 federal officials to join the 14,000 local residents. President John Adams told Congress, “You will consider [DC] as the capital of a great nation advancing with unexampled rapidity in arts, in commerce, in wealth, and in population, and possessing within itself those energies and resources which . . . will secure to it a long course of prosperity and self-government.”

American presidents, beginning with James Monroe in 1818, have championed DC political rights by calling on Congress to create “an arrangement better adapted to the principles of our government.” President Andrew Jackson in 1828 called on Congress to allow DC residents to elect a nonvoting Delegate “with the same privileges that are allowed to other territories of the United States.” It took until 1971 for Congress to act on the measure.

More often than not presidents have regarded DC political rights as a local issue and have been passive, in part because the issue has always been associated with conflict involving race, class, and ideology. Today most agree that DC residents should have equal rights, but disagree on how to achieve the goal. Today, the topic is viewed as partisan — the majority of DC’s residents are Democrats.

In the 1840s, President John Tyler urged “parental care” over the seat of government and President James Polk told Congress he would “be ever disposed to show a proper regard for [the District’s] wishes,” but some DC residents were getting impatient. And so, in 1846, residents in Alexandria City and County retroceded to and became part of Virginia, fragmenting George Washington’s diamond. But residents of Washington were intent on remaining the nation’s capital and winning equal rights — and decided to wait it out. And wait they have, through the Civil War, the Great War, and World War II.

Even as Lincoln emancipated slaves and District residents erected the first monument to him in front of its City Hall, a new kind of federal official emerged that was hostile toward self-government. In 1874, Congress abolished DC home rule and replaced it with a three-member commission appointed by the president, Ulysses S. Grant. Federal officials turned to repairing the capital after Civil War wear and tear. President Howard Taft, in 1921, while advocating for a great capital, said, “The truth is this is a city governed by a popular body, to wit, the Congress of the United States, selected from the people of the United States who own Washington.” And so the idea that DC residents were represented by officials they had no say in electing gained credence. President George W. Bush expressed a similar view.

Support for DC political progress has crossed party lines. In 1952, President Harry Truman became a DC champion. He told Congress, “I strongly believe that the citizens of the District of Columbia are entitled to self-government . . . local self-government is both the right and the responsibility of free men. The denial of self-government does not befit the National Capital of the world’s largest and most powerful democracy.”

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon all urged Congress to overturn the presidentially appointed commissioner government and institute limited home rule, but Congress was slow to act, as powerful southern segregationists blocked efforts. In 1960, Congress passed and President Kennedy supported the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution, giving DC the right to vote for President. Ironically, southern segregationists in Congress supported the bill in hopes that they would slow black equality by tossing a bread crumb to the movement. The Amendment was ratified — beginning with Hawaii — in 1961. For the first time in 1964, DC citizens voted in record numbers for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

President Johnson, perhaps the District’s greatest champion, used his presidential powers in unprecedented ways to reorganize the DC government to prepare for home rule. Political progress continued under President Nixon. In 1970, Congress established a “state like” court system for the District. In 1971 Congress granted the District a nonvoting Delegate, a position now held by Eleanor Holmes Norton. And on Christmas Eve in 1973, Congress passed and President Nixon signed a bill giving DC a home rule government with an elected mayor and council, which today oversees most of the functions of a state, county and city all in one.

In 1978, Congress proposed and President Jimmy Carter supported a Constitutional amendment to give DC full representation in Congress. But the amendment expired in 1985 as the nation elected President Ronald Reagan. District citizens continued their push for full rights by petitioning Congress to become the state of New Columbia, with full and equal rights. With the election of President Bill Clinton and Democratic control of the Congress in 1992, the District became hopeful that it could win. In 1993, the House voted on the issue and DC lost by 63 votes, with one Republican supporter and many Democratic opponents.

Nationally representative surveys that I have directed show that most Americans are unaware of the District’s quandary, but when told about it many are stunned and large majorities support equal Congressional voting rights — voting rights is, after all, an American birthright. More Americans support passage of a Constitutional amendment than support retrocession to Maryland or creating the state of New Columbia. But the District would require both a presidential champion and a massive national outreach effort to mobilize Americans to persuade two-thirds of both houses of Congress to propose a Constitutional amendment and three-fourths of the states to affirm it. And Congress is not showing any interest in DC statehood these days.

Over the past decade, DC citizens have pushed for more rights even as their rights have been removed or diminished. Locally elected officials have lowered their demands and today many are willing to accept less than equal rights because the road to equality appears far off and the prospects dismal. At a time when the people of the District of Columbia are hopeful at the election of President Barack Obama, and many wish for a champion, most are not delusional. Although presidents come and go and the more things change the more they seem to stay the same, District citizens keep pressing their case.

Mark David Richards is a Washington, DC sociologist. He is author of “The Debates over the Retrocession of the District of Columbia, 1801–2004” published in Washington History (Spring/Summer 2004) http://www.dcvote.org/trellis/struggle/mdrretrocession.pdf and “Excremental Progress: Reflections on Sewer Society and Recycled Myths,” a history of the DC sewer system, published by dcenter architectural journal, http://www.dcenter.net/

Presidential Messages to Congress

President James Monroe (1818): “The situation of this District . . . requires the attention of Congress. By the Constitution, the power of legislation is exclusively vested in the Congress of the United States. In the exercise of this power, in which the people have no participation, Congress legislates in all cases, directly, on the local concerns of the District. As this is a departure, for a special purpose, from the general principles of our system, it may merit consideration, whether an arrangement better adapted to the principles of our government, and to the particular interest of the people, may not be devised, which will neither infringe the constitution nor affect the object which the provision in question was intended to secure. The growing population . . . and the increasing business of the District, which it is believed already interferes with the deliberations of Congress on great national concerns, furnish additional motives for recommending this subject to your consideration.”

President Andrew Jackson (1828): Urged Congress to allow DC residents to elect a nonvoting Delegate to that body “with the same privileges that are allowed to other territories of the United States.” In 1831, Jackson again sent a message to Congress saying, “I deem it my duty again to call your attention to the condition of the District of Columbia. It was doubtless wise in the framers of our Constitution to place the people of this District under the jurisdiction of the general government, but to accomplish the objects they had in view it is not necessary that this people should be deprived of all the privileges of self-government. Independently of the difficulty of inducing the representatives of distant states to turn their attention to projects of laws which are not of the highest interest to their constituents, they are not individually, nor in Congress collectively, well qualified to legislate over the local concerns of this District. Consequently its interests are much neglected and the people are almost afraid to present their grievances, lest a body in which they are not represented wand which feels little sympathy in their local relations should in its attempt to make laws for them do more harm than good. . . . Is it not just to allow them at least a delegate to Congress, if not a local legislature, to make laws for the District, subject to the approval or rejection of Congress? I earnestly recommend the extension to them of every political right which their interests require and which may be compatible with the Constitution.”

President William Henry Harrison (1841): “The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens. Being in the latter condition when the Constitution was formed, no words used in that instrument could have been intended to deprive them of that character. If there is anything in the great principle of unalienable rights so emphatically insisted upon in our Declaration of Independence, they could neither make nor the United States accept a surrender of their liberties and become the subjects of their former fellow-citizens. . . . [T]he grant to Congress of exclusive jurisdiction in the District of Columbia can be interpreted, so far as respects the aggregate people of the United States, as meaning nothing more than to allow to Congress the controlling power necessary to afford a free and safe exercise of the functions assigned to the General Government by the Constitution. In all other respects the legislation of Congress should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests.”

President Harry Truman (1952): “I strongly believe that the citizens of the District of Columbia are entitled to self-government . . . local self-government is both the right and the responsibility of free men. The denial of self-government does not befit the National Capital of the world’s largest and most powerful democracy. Not only is the lack of self-government an injustice to the people of the District of Columbia, but it imposes a needless burden on Congress and it tends to controvert the principles for which this country stands before the world. . . .”

President Richard Nixon (1969): “The District’s citizens should not be expected to pay taxes for a government which they have no part in choosing — or to bear the full burdens of citizenship without the full rights of citizens.” “It should offend the democratic sense of this nation that the 850,000 citizens of its Capitol, comprising a population larger than 11 of its states, have no voice in the Congress.”

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