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  • Traci Holmer

The Fight for DC Statehood: Why Home Rule Isn’t Enough

In 2021, there was a rally calling for the expansion of federal voting rights in DC that had thousands of protestors.

The status of the District of Columbia is complicated, and it has a long history of residents fighting for more inclusion in democracy. When the Constitution was written, the District of Columbia was designated as “the seat of government,” giving Congress full authority to control DC. For most of its history, DC was ruled by a three-person commission whose members were appointed by the federal government, so DC residents had no vote in local representation. Over many decades, DC residents campaigned for representation and statehood, leading to the 23rd Amendment in 1960, which allows DC residents to vote for the president, and the Home Rule Act in 1973. The Home Rule Act allows DC residents to elect local officials and for a council to pass legislation. However, this legislation falls short because it still takes away full representation in Congress and local autonomy from DC residents.

If you visit DC, you might notice the phrase “Taxation Without Representation” on DC license plates as cars drive by. This phrase has origins in the American Revolution, with the Founding Fathers demanding representation in government since they paid taxes. DC residents use this phrase today because they pay federal taxes but lack full representation in Congress. Under the Home Rule Act, DC residents can elect one Senator who has no voting power, and they have no representation in the House of Representatives. Since DC residents have less representation than most citizens in the US, they have less say on federal matters. Without representation, they also can not hold Congress accountable when they interfere with the local government of DC.

Under the Home Rule Act, Congress has the right to block any legislation and budgets passed by DC Council. Congress has used this power several times since the Home Rule Act was passed. For example, in 1998, DC residents voted to legalize medical marijuana in the District through Initiative 59. Georgia Congress member Bob Barr who took a strong stance against marijuana legislation proceeded to pass the Barr Amendment which struck down DC’s referendum. In 2014, DC residents voted in favor of another referendum, Initiative 71, to legalize possession, cultivation, and use of marijuana.

In 2014, residents held up signs supporting Initiative 71 at the polls. 70% of DC voted in favor of Initiative 71.

However, earlier that year, Congress put provisions in the federal budget that prevented DC from using its funding to implement the legalization of marijuana, so today, it is an unregulated market. In both cases, the majority of DC residents directly voted for the legislation they wanted, and Congress still chose to interfere for partisan reasons.

Congress interfered with other legislative decisions relating to health. For instance, Congress blocked DC’s budget in 1998 when the DC Council tried to provide funding for a needle exchange program, which would provide drug users with clean needles. The purpose of this legislation was to slow the spread of HIV during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Furthermore, Congress designated DC as a territory in 2020 to reduce COVID-19 relief funding to the District. Congress put DC on the backburner during two major health crises and without a representative with voting power, residents were powerless to stop it.

Lastly, there was a law recently passed by the DC Council that would allow undocumented immigrants to vote in DC local elections, which Congress blocked in 2023. In addition to the expansion of voting rights, Congress disapproved of revisions to DC’s criminal code, which would have reduced mandatory minimum sentencing. Ultimately, these are local decisions about local legislation, but Congress members interfered with their own political agenda, even if it dismissed the needs of DC residents. By interfering with their local government, Congress members from other states practice tyrannical control over DC residents.

In 2016, 86% of DC residents voted in favor of DC Statehood in a referendum. DC Statehood advocacy has grown stronger since the Home Rule Act, resulting in a legislative push. In 2023, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduced the Washington DC Admission Act to the Senate. It had been previously passed in the House in 2019 and again in 2021, but was never introduced in the Senate. S.51 would carve out “the seat of government” in the center of DC where Congress, the White House, and other major federal buildings reside. The rest of DC would be designated as a state. This way DC could become a state without requiring a Constitutional amendment. DC residents would have full voting rights and representation in Congress. Congress would no longer be able to block legislation and budgets coming out of DC. Should this bill pass, it would be an outstanding victory for democracy.


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