1973: WHAT IF
WE GET HOME RULE?
By Sam Smith
From the DC Gazette 1973
ONE hundred and two years ago, when the District of Columbia was granted a territorial variant of what is optimistically called "home rule," the city held a three day celebration -- one day, as it turned out, for each year the city was to enjoy that status. The city quickly learned what Senator Thomas Eagleton put succinctly nine decades later: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
For under home rule, Congress doesn't surrender power; it merely delegates it. This delegation is revocable by a simple act of Congress. This is what happened in the 1870s and this is what could happen with any "home rule" bill that might -- according to the cheerful predictions of the home rule lobby, emerge from Congress in the next few weeks.
Should the predictions prove correct, we can expect to see Walter Washington back on the streets of the city for the first time since Richard Nixon took office. He may even dance. He will be joined by those to whom home rule matters most -- mayors and councilmembers-apparent, nascent ward heelers, amateur pols, a fair turnout of ordinary citizens who have been told their entire lives that home rule will end their political misery. If you look around, you'll probably find me there too, lifting a glass to the fascinating perversity of a democratic system that permits one its most neglected offspring to take a step forward even as the rest of the country is tumbling towards fascism. Even in its small moment of triumph, the District will remain out of step with the remainder of America.
Of course, we may all turn out to be victims of the unaccustomed euphoria of the League of Women Voters and wake up October 10 with a new cause to be mad at Joel Broyhill, Gerald Ford and a working majority of the House of Representatives. I suspect it all hinges on the relative number of debilitating hangovers among supporters and opponents of the House bill, the degree to which congressmen have been infected with morbid resignation to the inevitablity of local progress, whether the measure can be sufficiently gutted to catch the swing vote, and a host of other issues quite unrelated to the one at hand other than the fact the same congressmen have to vote on all of them. A successful drive for home rule depends upon sufficient congressional consciousness lowering; the District must become unimportant enough that it can be traded for something more valuable.
But let us stipulate that Congress will pass a bill that someone other than Ancher Nelsen can call home rule and that the President, caught on a day when his personality is on Its manic cycle, signs it. What will we have?
We will have reached the political plateau of participatory colonialism. better off than the Virgin Islands and worse off than Puerto Rico. In an era when the poor, the young, the old. the rural, the sick, the badly housed, the middle class, the United States Congress and everyone else outside of General Haig and Henry Kissinger is hard-pressed to point to any progress, it is less than grate-ful to suggest that an elected mayor would be wearing clothes on loan. but gratitude has lit-tle survival value in a colony. We can either wait years pretending we have self-government or proceed with the business of getting it.
The thing that bothers me most about the pending how rule legislation is that it is the former course that will be taken. Home rule legislation will give local politicians enough of the substance and trappings of power, including the official imprimatur of the governed, to deflate the drive to achieve equity with other Americans.Candidates, media and the business community will undoubtedly unite in telling Washingtonians that whatever it is you wanted, you've got and now stop complaining,
The apathy towards self-government that has so long afflicted Congress will spread to the District Building, just as surely as the political bag men will transfer some of their business from the House District Committee to 14th & Pennsylvania Avenue. (It appears that they will have to continue to operate out of both places; curiously (one might say suspiciously) the legislation does not provide for the abolishment of the congressional District committees). Those who wish to be equal to other Americans may find themselves fighting not only the Hill but some of their elected officials as well.
This is not a reason to oppose the legislation, merely a warning lest the general populace be tempted to engage in the same charade of democracy as its chosen leaders. The fight for home rule has been one of generals without an army; once we have home rule the fight will in all probability become one of an army without generals. Much as putting anti-poverty workers on the city payroll helped to emasculate the fight for economic justice; so the election of ex-home rulers to public office, and the appointment of their friends to other jobs will leave the streets empty of those to fight for true self-determination.
Judged by the value system of benign paternalism, the House bill has much to recommend it. Aside from the provisions normal to most such measures, it contains a number of improvements. While retaining the power of Congress over the District, it prescribes that this power be exercised through legislation rather than by veto in matters other than alterations in the municipal charter. This complicates the problem for Congress. Should the District pass a measure the Hill doesn't like, it would have to go through its own legislative labyrinth to undo the act. A friendly committee could easily bottle up the matter (although on the other hand an unfriendly one could expedite the measure to the floor).
Most significant perhaps, is a provision that authorizes the establishment of neighborhood councils that, if put into effect, would permit each resident of the city to vote for a legislator representing no more than 4.999 other people. Despite the extremely limited functions of these councils, they would represent a remarkable reversal of a a trend towards centralized democracy in American cities that has been going on for more than a hundred years, and they would form a network of neighborhoods that could be given real power under statehood.
There is little question but that the legislation proposed in the House would be an improvement over the present situation. It would enliven the city, increase the chances of the people's will being carried out and mitigate some of the more frustrating aspects of the present system. But we should be under no illusions. It is crypto-colonial legislation, both letter and intent, and leaves us far short of true self-government.
* The bill forbids the city from interfering with the structure, administration or jurisdiction of the courts.
* The Congress will continue to approve the annual federal payment, thus will retain great leverage over the budget.
* Any alterations in the municipal charter, as approved in referenda, are subject to veto by House or Senate.
* Congress can not only annul any local act, it may continue to pass any local acts it chooses, just as it does now.
* Planning decisions are subject to a veto of the National Capital Planning Commission (the city will be represented by only 4 or 5 out of 12 members) if an adverse impact on the federal interest is perceived.
* The city government may not tax the personal income of any person not a resident of the District.
* Nor can it increase its authority over the National Guard nor change the present height limitations on buildings.
* The bill fails to abolish the Senate and House district committees.
* The bill fails to give the city power over the Pennsylvania Avenue Commission (which actually controls much of downtown planning).
* And the bill, of course, is incapable of dealing with such problems as the lack of congressional representation or the non-coverage of DC residents of the 14th Amendment.
Thus the bill, good as it is, leaves the city judicially, fiscally and architecturally hostage to Congress and politically unequal to other Americans.
But beyond the words themselves, it is apparent that there are other restrictions. In fact, the measure grants three forms of power:
* Power that will remain with the federal government
* Power that will be given the District government that it may us.
* Power that will be given the District government but that it better not try to use.
The last-named powers are nowhere listed, but are very real. Because the delegation of power is conditional on good behavior, the political effect will be to restrict the actions of local officials. Thus, while in theory the City Council might have the power to repeal no-knock legislation it might be scared to do so. Countless other examples could be cited, examples in which the city will act with a caution virtually indistinguishable from the present instance, because Its leaders will understand that the price of freedom is subservience to the will of Congress.
Further, contrary to the assurances of the legislation's supporters, the measure does not adequately delineate between the fed-eral and local interest and it is not unreasonable to expect that the me rule as the claim of executive privilege has under the Nixon administration. The problem will remain the same as it was in 1800 when Washingtonian Augustus Woodward warned that "No policy can be worse than to mingle great and small concerns. The latter come absorbed in the former; are neglected and forgotten."
The passage of home rule legislation will be of great import to the city, but not be-cause it produces self-government but because it will give the people, if not the politicians, a greater understanding of why we need it.