News & Politics

A History of Congress Messing With DC

50 years of home rule—and federal meddling.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which gave DC its first elected mayor and council–and also allowed for continued meddling by Congress. In the decades since, House conservatives have popped up when the District has passed liberal laws on issues such as abortion, drugs, and criminal justice. Here’s a brief history of lawmakers messing with the city’s affairs.



Two years after home rule, Congress continues to involve itself in minute local issues. When DC plans to build a pool at Woodrow Wilson High School, the House uses a rider attached to its approval of the city’s budget to ensure that the pool will close at 9 PM, supposedly to avoid disturbing neighbors.



A conservative majority in the House strikes down a DC law that would have decriminalized homosexual acts and adultery between consenting adults and lowered rape sentences from life to 20 years.



Congress puts a raft of conditions on DC’s budget, blocking the District from public funds for abortion services, banning a requirement that city employees live in DC, and permitting church-­affiliated schools to discriminate against gay people.



The House blocks a DC act letting couples register as domestic partners and receive the benefits of marriage. (A domestic-partnership program eventually passes a decade later.) The same year, Congress orders the city to hold a referendum on reinstating the death penalty, which voters reject.



With the District in dire financial shape, Congress establishes the DC Financial Control Board, which has the power to override the mayor and DC Council.



The District votes to legalize medical marijuana, but the House votes to withhold the results of the referendum and blocks its implementation with the Barr Amendment. The first legal medical cannabis won’t be sold in DC for another 15 years.



The city’s 33-year-old ban on handguns is overturned by the Supreme Court. A majority of Congress members previously signed an amicus brief recommending that the court strike down the ban.



After DC decriminalizes marijuana, House Republicans block funding for the law’s implementation. The following year, the District legalizes weed outright.



The House and Senate–with President Biden’s support–vote to block the DC Council’s much-needed criminal-code overhaul. The bill would have eliminated mandatory minimums and reduced sentences for some crimes.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.
Icons by Niky Chopra.

Ike Allen
Editorial Fellow