Congress went from a system in which it passed all District laws and had a tight grip on everything done locally, no matter how minor, to one in which it merely held veto power over city legislation.
While some at the time thought Congress might be heavy-handed in using this authority, Congress has overturned only two local laws in a decade of home rule. These were a sexual assault bill that drew heavy opposition from the Moral Majority and one involving the location of foreign chanceries.
"Many of the people who voted for it home rule , the conservatives, really thought that the review process would be a way of keeping a hold of the District," said labor leader Joslyn Williams. "They thought D.C. would still be a place where people who had been referred by congressmen could get jobs."
Still, in the early years of home rule, Congress carefully scrutinized whatever the District did, and some feel congressmen were just waiting to see it fail.
"There were still some feelings in the Congress that, 'Well, they got it, now let's see what they're going to do about it,' " recalled Walter Washington. "I found that I couldn't get the same degree of support for a while that I'd gotten before. I mean, it was a peculiar thing."
The key to passage of home rule was the defeat of congressman John McMillan in 1972 and "the breakup of the coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans" in the House, according to Del. Walter Fauntroy.
That is why Fauntroy concentrated his efforts on helping register blacks in the South, to the extent that they eventually held the margin of victory for many congressmen, he said.
In 1973, Rep. Charles Diggs, a black liberal from Michigan, went from being No. 4 on the House District Committee the year before to being chairman, following the defeat of home rule opponents McMillan and Rep. Thomas G. Abernethy and the conviction of Rep. John W. Dowdy (D-Texas) on perjury charges in connection with a bribery investigation.
President Johnson had proposed home rule, but under McMillan's chairmanship it had gone nowhere. Under Diggs, it finally got through, but not without some strong opposition and compromise on several key issues, the first and foremost being control over the District's budget.
The final version that emerged from Congress and was signed into law by Richard Nixon on Christmas Eve 1973 retained for Congress the authority to rearrange the city's budget any way it sees fit. District backers also had to accept a specific prohibition against imposing a D.C. commuter tax and had to give up a formula-based federal payment.
The original act did not give the city authority to legislate criminal laws, although Congress later turned over that power. However, the city's court system remains under federal control.
Congress today generally avoids interfering with District issues, but its consideration of the D.C. budget often results in a few significant changes. Some congressmen simply can't resist complaining about potholes during budget reviews, while others insist upon viewing the District as a microcosm of America and ideal for testing out their pet projects.