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Washington, D.C., has been marking 50 years of so-called home rule

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This year, Washington, D.C., marks 50 years of home rule - 50 years since electing its first mayor in modern times. In the past, Congress asserted far more direct control over this federal district. Now, residents have more say, though Congress still dominates and D.C. residents have no representation there. Jacob Fenston reports on the D.C. statehood movement.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Jamal Holtz remembers the moment that turned him into an activist for D.C. statehood. He was a teenager back when Congress considered defunding the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. His own family had struggled to afford good health care.

JAMAL HOLTZ: I had experiences where I'd visit hospitals and doctors and was denied treatment just on the basis of the type of insurances that I had.

FENSTON: President Obama put out a call to action. He said, call your senators. But as a D.C. resident, Holtz didn't have a senator.

HOLTZ: Truly, I felt like I was a second-class citizen.

FENSTON: D.C. residents have been in a sort of democratic limbo for more than 200 years, ever since the city was founded as the seat of the federal government, not part of any state. In 1973, with the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Congress granted the majority-Black city limited self-government. Under home rule, D.C. residents can elect their own mayor and city council. They can vote for president. But local laws on everything from criminal penalties to building height limits go through Congress. George Derek Musgrove is a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

GEORGE DEREK MUSGROVE: Since the passage of home rule, we've had little baby steps here and there towards greater D.C. self-determination.

FENSTON: But he says Republicans in Congress have interfered with affairs in this left-leaning city, banning funding for abortion or needle exchanges, preventing D.C. from regulating marijuana. Over the years, there have been attempts to grant D.C. more autonomy. There was even a constitutional amendment that would have treated D.C. like a state with two senators and one representative in the House.

MUSGROVE: And in fact, it passes Congress in 1978. It's defeated before the states, unfortunately.

FENSTON: As attempts like this failed, the idea of statehood gained traction. In a 2016 referendum, 86% of D.C. voters backed a new state. It would include all the city's residential neighborhoods with a population bigger than Vermont or Wyoming. It would leave a two-square-mile independent federal district containing the white House and the U.S. Capitol. Democrats in the House passed D.C. statehood bills twice in 2020 and 2021. Republicans railed against it. Here's James Comer of Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMER: It's about Democrats adding two new progressive U.S. senators.

FENSTON: Opponents also say making D.C. a state would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. Roger Pilon is a constitutional scholar with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

ROGER PILON: There is no authority in Congress to convert the district into a state.

FENSTON: He says D.C. can't be admitted in the same way as other states through a simple majority vote in Congress.

PILON: The District of Columbia is not simply another federal territory. It's unique. It's sui generis. It was created precisely and expressly to be the seat of the federal government.

FENSTON: It would take an amendment to the Constitution, he says, starting with a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress. That's hard to imagine in today's political climate. Still, D.C. statehood activists are pinning their hopes on this November. They say if Democrats win Congress and the White House, there's a real chance. Here's activist Jamal Holtz again.

HOLTZ: We have to be assertive to ensure that our voices are not sidelined. I mean, we saw this two years ago - people fighting for much needed legislation across the country that related to voter suppression, and D.C. statehood was left out of the conversation in many instances.

FENSTON: Fifty years ago, Washington won home rule after D.C. rights got swept up in the momentum of the civil rights movement. Activists say now, D.C. statehood will only happen if it's part of a national fight for voting rights.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Fenston