President Biden’s recently proposed budget has drawn attention to the District of Columbia’s lack of control over its own affairs. The budget would preserve a longstanding congressional ban on DC’s use of its own tax funds to implement a legal cannabis sales system similar to those adopted in many other states and localities across the country. This prohibition was crafted by a Maryland congressman in direct contradiction to the will of district residents.
The ban’s continuation comes on the heels of leading House Republicans promising to further restrict the District’s already limited control over its own affairs if they win back Congress in the midterms. In fact, some have gone so far as calling for a full repeal of the Home Rule Act, which allows for a city government elected by DC residents.
These threats are a reminder of how tenuous DC’s local autonomy is. They also underscore the importance of DC statehood not only to ensure fair representation in Congress but also to guarantee the district’s residents the same rights their fellow citizens enjoy, having a say in the rules that govern their lives.
Home rule for DC, historically a majority and still a plurality Black city, has always been a core civil rights concern. Since 1973, the Home Rule Act has empowered residents to elect their own mayor and representatives to a 13-member city council. Residents and activists fought for almost two centuries to achieve even this limited democratic milestone. They faced staunch opposition from segregationists in Congress who had no qualms about invoking white supremacy to justify the total disenfranchisement of district residents.
The civil rights movement, advocates’ leadership, and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act underscored the importance of DC home rule. By empowering Black southerners to register to vote, the law flipped many southern congressional districts and provided momentum for the Home Rule Act to pass.
But home rule was only a partial victory. The District Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the ability to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” in the district. The Home Rule Act surrendered a little of that power, but Congress reserved the right to veto any municipal policy and retained extensive control of local district tax revenues, which must still be disbursed through congressional appropriations.
This has significant consequences for DC residents. The ban on cannabis sales is one example among many. In 1992, Congress overruled a measure the district passed to expand health insurance coverage to the domestic partners of unmarried city workers. From 1998 to 2007, Congress blocked the district from using local tax dollars for a needle-exchange program. In all but four years since 1988, Congress has banned DC from using local funds to provide abortion services for Medicaid recipients, which disproportionately impacts women of color in the district. In making these decisions, some members of Congress deliberately subvert the will of DC residents to impose their own agenda. Others have noted the “paternalistic attitude tinged with racism” driving many of these decisions.
These same attitudes now threaten the limited gains DC has made. Home rule opponents cite problems like crime, which is increasing nationwide and for which DC is not an outlier. In doing so, they have increasingly resorted to the sort of antidemocratic, racially tinged rhetoric that was previously used to justify denial of voting rights to DC residents. DC Mayor Muriel Bowserthe district’s second Black female mayor, has frequently been the target of this rhetoric .
This backlash is brewing just as Congress has come closer than ever to making DC a state. The House passed H.R. 51, the Washington, DC Admission Act, for the first time in 2020 and again in 2021. The bill’s counterpart in the Senate, S. 51, received a committee hearing during the current session of Congress.
DC, with nearly 700,000 residents, has more people than Vermont and Wyoming and a similar population to several more states. No other country singles out the residents of its own capital city for disenfranchisement in this manner. And yet, even maintaining limited self-governance appears to be under threat.
Without statehood, DC residents will remain deprived of real control over their own affairs, and their limited agency will continue to be exposed to further erosion. Statehood ensures that residents have the same voice in the local laws that govern their lives and say in our national life enjoyed by their fellow citizens. It is past time to grant district residents the right to fully participate in our democracy.