“Those of you here in the District of Columbia, I want to warn you this morning, that the clock is ticking, time is moving,” the president said. “Remember, when people feel mistreated and they feel injustices, and when they have to move from their homes and they have no jobs, and they have no vote, and they have no voice — well, there is not one place to go if you can’t go up.”
This was a moment of increasing racial tension and violence across the nation, and the president was clearly afraid the nation’s capital — which at the time was the only major city in the country whose population was majority Black — could be next to go up in flames. House minority leader (and future president) Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) accused him of inviting “terrorism in the streets.” Dismayed White House aides tried to walk back his comments, saying LBJ had not intended to single out D.C. that way. But in a brief news conference later that day, he was adamant: “I meant just what I said.”
Again and again, Johnson — arguably the 20th century’s most masterful legislative strategist — would fall short in his efforts to bring home rule to D.C. residents; in 1967, he appointed Walter E. Washington the first Black mayor of a big U.S. city. “The people of Washington are about as franchised as I can get them,” Johnson ruefully told his domestic policy adviser, Joseph A. Califano Jr.
The D.C. Home Rule Act, providing for a popularly elected mayor and city council, would not pass until after Johnson’s death in 1973. And even then, self-determination for the city’s residents was governed by the Constitution’s provision giving Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over D.C.
That constitutional language is a reflection of the framers’ concerns about what James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 43 called “the indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government.” Yet it leaves the District’s roughly 700,000 residents themselves no say in what Congress does, and D.C. statehood remains a distant fantasy.
These two conflicting principles — the rights of D.C. residents to live under a representative government and the need to invest power in those who run the federal capital — are once again in the spotlight. The flash point this time was a flawed revision to the antiquated D.C. criminal code, which the D.C. Council passed over Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s veto. It has now been overturned by Congress, marking the first time lawmakers have taken such an action against a piece of D.C. legislation since 1991.
President Biden, though on record as supporting D.C. statehood, has announced he will not use his veto power to block the legislation overturning the code. Among his concerns is a provision lowering the maximum penalties for violent crimes such as carjacking. Congressional Democrats are divided. Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), for instance, had initially voiced support, saying, “Local government should do what they think is right for the community,” but on Monday said he would vote in favor of nullifying the council’s action, saying the new criminal code is “not ready for prime time.”
Cynics have said that, with an election year coming up, the Democrats are caving to fears that they might be labeled “soft on crime.” But if you look beyond the district lines and across the country, it is clear that D.C. is not the only place where public safety is a rising concern and local leaders are on the defensive.
Last year, San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in the nation, ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D), who was perceived as too lenient on criminals. The crime rate is also the primary reason Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) failed to even make the runoff in last week’s election there.
For D.C., fortunately, there is also another path. It is becoming increasingly apparent that D.C. Council members themselves are having second thoughts about the legislation they passed, which does not go into effect until 2025. (Bowser wants to delay its implementation even longer, to 2027, as part of a set of revisions she has proposed.)
No doubt about it, Congress’s action against the D.C. code revision need not be the final word. That still rests with the city’s elected leaders. Home rule is not absolute power, but it is power nonetheless, and council members should exercise it to produce a better set of laws to protect their constituents. As LBJ put it more than a half-century ago, the clock is ticking.