Before there was home rule in 20th-century Washington, there was Rep. John L. McMillan, the late South Carolina Democrat who ruled the District like a medieval king, though no one here ever cast a single ballot for him.
The authority of Congress as shown in recent battles between the city and the Hill pales in comparison to McMillan's autocratic 26-year reign. He controlled everything from the height of buildings to the size of rockfish that could be sold on the streets.
A strong-willed, slow-talking conservative from Florence who became chairman of the House District Committee in 1946, McMillan blocked the city from hiring 26 meter maids to write parking tickets. Yet, he had no qualms about accepting traffic tickets from members of Congress and other VIPs and forwarding them to the District police department for "adjustment."
When he was asked why he closed most of the committee's decision-making meetings to the public, McMillan snapped: "That's my business."
But he was warm-hearted to his friends, sponsoring special zoning changes for favored projects and regularly interceding with D.C. officials on behalf of liquor dealers and parking magnates.
Once he helped a family friend seeking a contract to sell insurance to the D.C. Armory, and seemed not at all embarrassed when it was revealed that the man had sold him a Cadillac at a hefty discount.
In the late 1950s, one of McMillan's subcommittee chairmen, Rep. James C. Davis (D-Ga.), investigated the city's school system in an effort to prove that integration led to juvenile delinquency and sex offenses.
The only people interested in home rule, McMillan grumbled, were "rabble rousers" and Communists. Nevertheless, in 1965,
then president Lyndon B. Johnson wrested a home rule bill from the panel's control, only to lose a showdown vote on the House floor.
Two years later, Johnson persuaded Congress to replace the old three-commissioner system with one headed by an appointed mayor and city council, along with an elected school board. Still, the city's powers were so limited that it had to ask Congress for permission to hold a kite-flying contest on the Mall.
Walter E. Fauntroy and other civil rights activists later campaigned against McMillan in South Carolina, and he finally was defeated in 1972.
It was during this period that former representative Joel Broyhill (R-Va.) emerged as a dominant influence on the House District Committee, often dismissing the appointed mayor, Walter E. Washington, as a good ribbon-cutter.
When the City Council balked at Broyhill's suggestion that the 14th Street Bridge be named after Virginia's Revolutionary War hero, Light Horse Harry Lee, the congressman introduced an amendment to strip the council of the authority to name anything -- even schools and alleys.
In 1972, when the House District Committee was at last ready to vote on a home rule bill, Broyhill deprived the panel of a quorum by standing outside the room for 30 minutes.
Inside, Rep. Earl Landgrebe (R-Ind.) argued that home rule was a scary notion. "This community, with the makeup of its population, I don't know who these people would elect," Landgrebe complained. "Jane Fonda? Or what's his name -- Stokely Carmichael?"
The following year, Fauntroy and his allies finally were able to push the D.C. Home Rule Act through Congress, with some key concessions, such as allowing either house of Congress to veto any changes in the D.C. criminal code within 30 days.
Few expected that provision to be used to overturn such local laws as the city's sexual assault bill.
"This is a perversion of what was intended," said lawyer Joseph Rauh, one of the early leaders of the home rule drive.
But Broyhill, turned out of office by the voters in 1974, could not disagree more. "This city doesn't belong to the people who live on 14th and U," he said the other day. "The people who live in the District should be treated the same as people who live in military reservations."