News & Politics

Is DC More Independent 40 Years Into Home Rule?

Moves toward autonomy are slow and small.

Last week freshman Michigan congressman
Kerry Bentivolio, who supported himself as a

before coming to Congress, left coals in the District’s

Representative Bentivolio let it be known he has drafted legislation to free DC from
traffic cameras. His bill would make the District government the only one in the nation
barred from using cameras to issue tickets for speeding or running a red light. The
congressman, from a district northwest of Detroit, didn’t give much of a reason. He
doesn’t have a car in DC. An aide told the Associated Press the bill will “protect
the people’s rights, not take them away.”

This might be welcome news to those of us who have received a letter from DMV with
a photo of the infraction and a ticket for $100 or more. But DC Representative
Eleanor Holmes Norton was none too pleased about Bentivolio’s proposal.

“We will fight each and every congressional attack on
our right to self-government,”

“especially against congressional bullies who betray their own
well-known views on
federal interference on local matters by trying to use the big
foot of the federal
government against our local government.”

That sounds a bit hyperbolic, but Norton has been battling congressmen who want to
impose their will on her hometown almost every one of her 22 years as DC’s non-voting

On this July Fourth, how independent is the District? Congress passed the Home Rule
Act in 1973, providing for an elected mayor and city council. Forty years later, has
the District increased its independence?

The short answer is no.

Congress still must approve every law passed by the council and signed by the mayor.
Congress has discretion over every tax dollar raised in DC. For the past few years,
Norton has introduced legislation to give the District budget autonomy from Congress.
She’s gotten close, but a bill has never passed both the House and Senate.

Last April, District residents overwhelmingly supported a referendum to give the local
government budget autonomy. Congress yawned.

On the criminal justice side, the top federal prosecutor in town is the US Attorney,
a federal official appointed by the president. The District has no elected or appointed
prosecutor for major crimes. The city’s appointed attorney general can prosecute only
minor misdemeanors.

Fundamentally, the District is still a “federal enclave,” controlled by Congress and
the executive branch.

“We still don’t have the autonomy we deserve,” says
Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, the principal advocacy group for local empowerment.
“But we’re getting there.”

Very slowly, if you take into account legislation proposed in the past year. Congressmen
from districts as far away as Utah have floated proposals to loosen DC’s gun laws,
restrict spending on abortion, and use public funds for private school vouchers.


Yes, says Perry. “We need to educate congressmen so they refrain from using the District
as a laboratory to advance their policies.”

Those policies often involve women’s reproductive rights. In the first six months
of the 113th Congress, senators and House members have introduced bills and added
riders to legislation that would ban the District from spending local funds on abortions
for low-income women after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

That prompted a coalition of reproductive rights groups to join Norton and Mayor
Vince Gray on May 28 at a press conference to push for budget autonomy. All justified and well
and good, but Congress does not seem to be in the mood to grant the District more

True, Delaware Senator
Tom Carper introduced a bill in January to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. At the
unveiling of the Frederick Douglass statue in the Capitol Visitor’s Center on June
19, Majority Leader
Harry Reid said he would co-sponsor the bill. Carper has said he would hold hearings this fall.
But the bill has little chance of passing the Senate and will go nowhere in the House.

US Attorney
Ron Machen’s corruption investigation has already taken down two sitting DC council members
and nailed a former one for bribery. His ongoing investigation could target more council
members and perhaps reach Mayor Gray.

Corruption at the top could bring calls for the federal government to curtail DC’s
home rule, rather than increase its independence.

Meanwhile, District politicians are dealing with the traffic cameras, which added
$95 million to the coffers in 2012. Mayor Gray has lowered some fines. Council member

Vincent Orange sent Congressman Bentivolio a letter explaining that he plans to introduce a bill
to place a moratorium on new traffic cameras and mandate warning signs for existing

Bentivolio has yet to introduce his legislation banning the cameras altogether.