Publication Date

December 1, 1998

We must be doing something right, we've been here for 200 years.

That line, from the feature song of Robert Altman's mocking celebration of the nation's bicentennial, the 1975 film Nashville, might well be applied to Washington, D.C., today. Referred to derisively as the Murder Capital, Chocolate City, or more broadly as “Inside the Beltway,” contemporary Washington suffers a poor national reputation. The sense of ownership that once induced Congress to allocate annually one cent for every American for the care and improvement of the capital city is a lost relic of the past. In tune with these times, Congress tries to find ways to end entirely the federal payment that has been part of Washington’s operating budget since 1874. And yet, tourists continue to inundate Washington. When they are not themselves flocking to the capital, they can enjoy through television the rituals of nationhood—July Fourth celebrations, presidential inaugurations, holiday services from the National Cathedral—all set against the stunning backdrop of national monuments.

Washington, in fact, is two cities: the majestic and monumental federal core, the product of two centuries of visionary planning, and a mixed collection of residential areas, some beleaguered with the worst elements of neglect that can be found in older American cities. As you contemplate visiting Washington this January, we invite you to investigate the whole city, its rich neighborhood life, as described by Kathryn Smith in the accompanying article, as well as its vast array of museums and related federal attractions. We also invite you to consider the city's past, for it exerts a burden that should be of more than commonplace interest to historians. Although undervalued in contemporary scholarship as an anomaly, Washington's service-based economy makes it more representative than not of trends in the new global economy. Its peculiar political condition under Congress's exclusive jurisdiction deprives the city of the normal mediation of state government between it and federal authority. What that means, however, is that national urban policy most often is auditioned in Washington. If we continue to be confronted in America with poverty amidst progress—to paraphrase Henry George's 1879 dictum—then it is in Washington where we are most centrally confronted with that dilemma.

Do not confuse contemporary media criticism of the city with its true dilemma. The city's most recent fiscal crisis and Mayor Marion Barry's association with it is a case in point. Nothing could be more shocking to the general public than to see the former mayor, tried and convicted for smoking crack cocaine, re-elected two years after his release from prison. The fact that within months of Barry's election Congress imposed a financial review board on an unwilling city to deal with a deficit projected at close to $750 million seemed ample testimony to the incompetence of local government generally and its most visible representative in Barry. But the situation was more complicated than generally reported. Under the terms of the 1974 home rule act re-instituting an elected local government after a century of rule by appointed commission, Congress both bequeathed an unfunded pension program to the city and prohibited it from taxing commuters. As Barry assumed office again in 1995 after four years of forced retirement, he inherited right away from his predecessor an $89 million pension obligation. Besides, revenues were down considerably from his previous term in office.

Failing to secure from the control board the funds necessary to cover immediate expenses in order to balance the budget by the end of the fiscal year nine months later, the city had to cut services dramatically. Predictably, terrible publicity followed: fire engines kept out of service, police cars without radios, bodies stacking up in the morgue. Finally, in 1997 as part of the federal budget, the national government assumed responsibility for Washington's pension costs along with other obligations normally borne by the states. Within a year, the city returned a budget surplus. Cuts in costs instituted by local government as well as additional federal support could be credited along with a robust economy for Washington's recovery. Yet no one claims recovery flowed from a partnership between local and federal authorities. Instead, tension between city and capital has reached an all-time high.

One might be tempted to blame the clash between a conservative congress and a liberal Democratic city government headed by the flamboyant Barry. An October 29, 1995, New York Times Magazine cover picturing Barry with Speaker Newt Gingrich under the title “The Odd Couple,” seemed to capture the situation well. But that tension was nothing new. It has been permanently built into the concept of exclusive jurisdiction.

The origin of the concept of exclusive jurisdiction dates back to the 18th century. Fearing any one state would exercise excessive control over the capital should it be located within its confines, representatives determined to exercise their own control over a permanent federal district. That determination solidified in 1783 when a number of unpaid Pennsylvania veterans marched on Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia, to demand back pay for their services in the Revolution. When the state council failed to intervene to assure the members' safety in the face of the veterans' aggressive demands, Congress adjourned to reassemble in Princeton, New Jersey. Subsequently supporters of strong central government argued for the constitutional provision for exclusive jurisdiction over the federal district.

Under the act that set the Potomac River as the site for a new federal district, residents of the states of Maryland and Virginia living in the territory ceded to the District continued to vote in their own states for the 10 years while Philadelphia remained the temporary capital. With the arrival of Congress in the new District of Columbia in 1800, however, no arrangement had been made to assure for the representation of residents of the city of Washington. Local critics immediately objected, including Virginia-born lawyer August Woodward, who predicted—accurately enough—that it would be difficult for Congress to mix the affairs of state with the administration of local concerns. Responding to such criticism, Congress created a local government for Washington in 1802, providing a charter with a mayor appointed by the president and a 12-member city council elected by white male property owners. Other charter revisions followed, most notably in 1820, which provided for the expansion of services and the popular election of mayor.

Funding for the new District of Columbia remained sporadic, however. Disgruntled by the obstacles to building their aspirations as port cities under restrictions imposed by Congress, Georgetown and Alexandria threatened to secede from the District. In 1846 Alexandria did just that. While Washington's City Council expressed its concern that the loss to the District of one-third its territory threatened its hold as the nation's capital, both Congress and the Virginia Assembly approved the decision. Alexandrians celebrated the change, not the least because they believed Virginia would be more generous than Congress had been in investing in its public works, most notably an extension of its canal system.

The Civil War marked a period of rapid expansion in the District of Columbia, as government functions mushroomed and population grew accordingly. With the ascension of Radical Republican domination, Congress treated Washington as though it were under Reconstruction. A Radical Republican mayor, Sayles Bowen, was elected in 1868, with a boost from the enfranchisement of the city's black male adult population. Bowen advanced an expansive program of civil rights as well as physical improvements to the city. While the establishment greeted the latter warmly, given Washington's arrested development before and during the Civil War, Bowen's embrace of the freedmen created a backlash within his own party. In 1870 he was defeated for re-election by another Republican, and within the year Congress enacted an entirely new system—territorial government—which restricted the franchise previously exercised by making the governor and the upper body of the legislature the appointments of the president. Only a lower house of representatives remained popularly elected.

As the key figure in the new government, Alexander Shepherd utilized a· powerful board of public works to build patronage and to reconstruct the physical fabric of the city. Democrats, who thought they would be included in the new government but were not, objected to plans to spend large sums on city improvements. But Republicans had the votes to authorize the expenditures, and when, in 1872, Shepherd was questioned before Congress about alleged improprieties in expenditures, he was given only a gentle reprimand. A second investigation in 1874, after power had shifted away from Shepherd's Republican allies, was more thorough and critical. As governor of the territory, Shepherd claimed the panic of 1873 had forced him to exceed a congressional cap on spending. No longer capable of sustaining himself in power, however, Shepherd saw Congress terminate not just his position but the entire territorial experiment. A three-person commission was named by the president to run the city temporarily. Four years later, under the Organic Act of 1878, Congress made the change permanent.

Most local leaders accepted the change in governance, not the least because it carried with it the first commitment from the federal government to make an annual payment toward District expenses, a rate set at 50 percent. In subsequent years many defended Washington's arrangement as more efficient than the corrupt rule of such machines as could be found in other major cities. While some local activists sought the restoration of local rights, Congress paid little heed to their complaints, and Washington residents were forced to make their views known either through representatives of their neighborhood organizations or the city's Board of Trade, established in 1889, with a promise to represent local interests city-wide.

Washington continued to receive a measure of positive reviews for its unique and undemocratic system of governance, but starting in the 1930s sufficient concerns about the effectiveness of such a system prompted a number of critical studies, 30 between 1934 and 1941 alone. Among the concerns were that the commissioner form of government failed to separate administrative and legislative functions; it divided responsibilities between too many independent and federal agencies; and it responded more readily to the interests of individual members of Congress than to local citizen concerns. As early as 1929 a Brookings Institution study recommended that federal officers be relieved of all responsibility for "duties which pertain to the affairs of the District."

The system had become entrenched, however, and neither the Board of Trade nor key members of Congress wanted to change it. The Board of Trade favored some form of representation in Congress, but it strongly opposed any return to local self-governance. While the U.S. Senate approved home rule bills five times between 1949 and 1960, the House District Committee prevented the bills from ever reaching a vote on the House floor.

It took the power of national attention—coming as part of a civil rights movement at a time when Washington had become the first major American city with a black majority—to give the drive for home rule momentum. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson asked his special assistant for District affairs, Charles Horsky, to fashion a bill on Capitol Hill to provide for an elected city council. When Horsky failed to get the support he needed, Johnson, by executive order, created an appointed city council of nine persons and a mayor-commissioner to replace the old board of commissioners.

Johnson's plan gained support of local activists as the best that could be expected immediately, but efforts continued to secure true home rule in the following years. In 1969 Congress named a new commission to study the problem headed by Rep. Ancher Nelson (R-Minn.). Its report, published in August 1972, urged a thorough reorganization of the District government. Coincidentally, the strongest opponent of home rule, House District Chairman John McMillan, was defeated in the South Carolina Democratic primary.

With the added leverage of the Nelson Commission's recommendations, Congress finally passed home rule legislation in December 1973. It provided for the election of a mayor and a city council of 13 members. Responding to continuing desires in Congress to exercise control over the city, however, it retained the rights to approve the city budget and all legislation passed by the council. It also prohibited the city from taxing federal property or the income of commuters working in the city.

Although there were those who criticized the new plan, as in 1967, it was generally accepted as the best arrangement Washington citizens could hope for, and the proposal received an overwhelming vote of 83,530–18,037 in a 1974 referendum.

The Home Rule Act appeared to be working well enough in early years, and as a consequence interest shifted to securing representation in Congress. A constitutional amendment granting that right passed Congress in 1978, but when the necessary two-thirds of the states failed to ratify it, local activists sought to convert Washington to a state. In 1982 local residents elected to a statehood convention fashioned a constitution for the state of New Columbia and got it approved by initiative, 60,333–53,914. The constitution contained a number of controversial provisions, and in 1987 the City Council, working with the city's non-voting delegate to Congress, Walter Fauntroy, forged a more simplified version for presentation to Congress. Although the House District Committee voted out the bill that year, it did not come to a full vote on the floor. In fact, Congress failed to vote on the measure until November 1993, when the House of Representatives, then still under Democratic control, rejected the proposal by a 277–153 margin.

Another approach to altering Washington's governance, retrocession to Maryland, which had been discussed intermittently for years, gained renewed attention in 1996, with the creation of an advocacy group, the Committee for the Capital City. Following Mayor Barry's dramatic statement on February 2, 1995, that the city could no longer afford to sustain state functions, critics took a renewed look at retrocession as a way of sorting out local and state functions. Given the District's precarious financial position and mutual suspicion between leaders of the two juris­ dictions, however, retrocession did not generate any immediate political support.

In 1997, in spite of and not because of Marion Barry's previous suggestion, President Clinton proposed and Congress adopted measures to assume the city's costly pension plan as well as a number of other functions normally shouldered by the states. Adding insult to the mix, however, Senate appropriations subcommittee chairman Lauch Faircloth inserted a provision transferring all but a small fraction of daily administrative duties from the mayor to an appointed manager. Although the move provoked a semblance of earlier protests over loss of home rule, it was not long before the effort was gaining praise from such respected columnists as Neil Pierce, let alone an anything-but-neutral Congress.

No doubt, Faircloth's move was directed at Marion Barry, and with his departure from office this month, Congress more likely will be willing to deal more fairly with local officials. But the issue of home rule continues to fester.

This past September, Washington corporation counsel John Ferren took the dramatic step of suing the president and Congress in U.S. District Court to redress the exclusion of some half million District residents from representation in the national government that continues to hold ultimate power over their affairs. While constitutional experts point to the provision stating that representation in Congress shall be only from the states, a wide-ranging brief prepared by American University law professor Jamin Raskin points to a host of legislative enactments that already treat the District of Columbia as though it were a state. Most prominent is the 23rd Amendment, passed and ratified in 1960, granting the District of Columbia three electoral votes in presidential elections. The brief also recount the ways in which voting rights have be extended in the 200 years Congress power of exclusive jurisdiction has been in effect.

At a conference in October discussing the lawsuit and its implications, Brenda Wright, managing attorney for the National Voting Rights Institute, recalled President Lincoln's statement that he would be neither a master nor a slave. In electing members of Congress who set policy for the District of Columbia, Wright argued, all voters outside Washington become, in effect, masters. Their willingness to allow this anomalous situation to continue for over 200 years remains their responsibility as much as anyone's. If we follow Wright's logic, historians share the responsibility to challenge a blatantly undemocratic situation.

A century ago, the country celebrated the capital's centennial by authorizing a brilliant plan which over a generation recast the city's core as the monumental presence we so often celebrate today. That achievement advanced at the cost of Washington residents, isolating the federal government both physically and psychologically from the city around it. Another century later, local residents are asking something more for their bicentennial year: full inclusion in their democratic system of government. That alone will not solve Washington's unresolved social and economic problems. But it will make it possible for all involved to address these issues with the same tools and under the same rules that govern the rest of the country. Just what that arrangement might be—statehood, retrocession of the residential section to Maryland, or some form of representation in Congress as the Ferren suit requests—the elimination of an 18th­century rule is a necessary condition for Washington's ability to enter the 21st century successfully.

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