Two months into Republican control of the House of Representatives, a lot has changed. Some of Joe Biden’s top legislative priorities have stalled in Congress. Nancy Pelosi is no longer Speaker of the House. The January 6 committee shut down. But for D.C. residents, another set of changes hits much closer to home.
Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to secure the house speakership have given Republicans more power to meddle with D.C.’s laws by allowing federal legislators to sneak unlimited “rider” amendments into federal budget measures. Riders are extra provisions tacked on to a bill that often aren’t related to the bill’s initial purpose. It’s like when you invite a friend to a kickback and they show up with 3 random people you’ve never met before. Historically, Republicans have used riders to ban D.C. from funding abortion services, interfere with D.C.’s ability to regulate cannabis sales and prevent city workers’ health insurance plans from covering domestic partners. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA), who helped secure McCarthy’s concessions, even suggested abolishing D.C.’s city government entirely.
Saul Pink, a D.C. native and Medill second-year currently participating in Medill on the Hill, said his local politics professor warned student journalists to keep an eye out for anti-D.C. policies in the new Congress when the program began in January.
Two weeks ago, Republicans in the House (with the help of 31 Democrats) passed a pair of resolutions to overturn two laws recently approved by the D.C. city council: one that allows noncitizens to vote in city elections and another that reduces mandatory minimum sentencing in D.C.’s criminal code. The first law would allow both green card holders and undocumented people in D.C. to vote in local races only. The second would update D.C.’s ancient criminal code created in 1901 and reduce mandatory minimum sentencing rules for a host of offenses, including some violent crimes. D.C.’s Democratic Mayor actually vetoed the crime overhaul but was overridden by the city council. Republicans in Congress have complained about the two laws for a while but until last week’s vote, it was unclear if they would take legislative action to counter them.
“It’s getting to the point where D.C. residents can’t have a say over their own laws,” said Medill first-year Jonas Blum, a native of Bethesda, Maryland on the border of D.C. “The liberty of the people in D.C. should not be limited by who is in Washington.”
The criminal bill counter-resolution will probably become law since Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has come out in favor, effectively securing its passage in the Senate, and Joe Biden has indicated that he will not exercise veto power once it reaches his desk. The fate of the other counter-resolution is less clear, but regardless of outcome, D.C. officials worry that Republicans will now be more emboldened to come after the city’s autonomy going forward.
Republicans derive their authority to change D.C. laws from a clause in the Constitution that says Congress can legislate for the capital city “in all cases whatsoever”. However, the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973 delegated the bulk of local governance to a mayor and 13-member council. Since then, D.C. residents have pushed back on federal involvement in civic matters, arguing that they shouldn’t be governed by leaders they didn’t elect.
There’s a racial dimension here too. Black people make up 45% of D.C.’s population – one of the largest percentages in a major American city. D.C.’s mayor is Black and so are 7 of the district’s 13 city council members. By contrast, Congress is 75% white. After the pair of resolutions passed, D.C. House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that in seeking to overturn the city’s laws, the House affirmed its belief that, “D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black, and brown, are either unworthy or incapable of governing themselves.”
Concerns over the city’s autonomy have galvanized the movement for D.C. statehood in recent years. In 2021, the then Democratically controlled House passed a bill admitting D.C. to the union as the 51st state. This bill was shot down in the Senate after Joe Manchin came out against it, but the prospect of statehood continues to loom large.
“When I was in middle school, I definitely didn’t hear as much about D.C. statehood,” said Pink. “Now I see shirts in storefronts that say ‘51st state.’”
Blum made a similar observation. He said that in recent years, D.C. license plates went from displaying the phrase “Taxation Without Representation” to a slightly more pointed “End Taxation Without Representation.”
Republicans won’t be able to escalate threats to D.C. home rule until at least the next election cycle because Democrats control the Senate and White House. Until then, Republicans will likely rely on rider amendments to dictate what the city’s government is allowed to fund. In Pink’s view, this incremental approach is unlikely to inspire much resistance.
“I don’t think the average D.C. resident pays much attention to what Congress is doing to have power over the council,” he told me.
But with renewed hostility towards the city’s autonomy and potentially greater legislative clashes on the horizon, that could soon change.
Thumbnail image: "Washington DC" by barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.