Republicans routinely champion taking power from the federal government and giving it to states and localities. And yet, seemingly every year, congressional Republicans trample all over the right of Washington, D.C., residents to govern themselves.
The latest offender is Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer, who is spearheading an effort to prevent the District from using its own money to carry out a law the D.C. Council passed in 2015 that forbids employers from discriminating against workers based on their reproductive choices. As in years past, Republicans are also working to block council-passed bills allowing the city to spend its own tax money without congressional approval, subsidize abortions for poor women, regulate marijuana sales and legalize assisted suicide.
Why are Republicans so hostile to democracy in the nation’s capital?
One obvious answer: Nine in 10 District residents are Democrats. Since the 1961 ratification of the 23rd Amendment, which allowed residents to vote in presidential elections, Democrats have carried the city with margins that would make Joseph Stalin blush, and no self-identified Republican has won a citywide office since 2002.
Additionally, for much of the past half-century the city has had one of the largest and most politically assertive black populations in the country. A supermajority of the first modern D.C. Council were civil rights and black power activists. The modern Republican coalition, on the other hand, has been knit together in large part through racial resentments against black citizens and the liberal programs ostensibly meant to help them.
But this hostility is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Just one generation ago, Republicans were some of the most eloquent proponents of District self-determination. Republican Richard Nixon signed a bill in 1971 that gave the city a nonvoting member of Congress and a bill in 1973 that gave D.C. limited home rule. For the entire decade, the national GOP was on record as supporting a vote for the District in Congress.
But fearing the growth of black, liberal political power, and the legislative reforms that District representatives would undoubtedly support, grass-roots conservatives engineered an abrupt about-face in their party’s position. They successfully campaigned to scuttle the city’s quest for a vote in Congress and have since demanded opposition to any expansion of local self-government.
Hope abounded in D.C. politics in the 1970s. After nearly a century of disenfranchisement, a bipartisan wave of liberal reform swept across the country, bringing the capital city a vote in presidential elections, a nonvoting delegate to Congress and local self-government. Determined to capitalize on this momentum, local activists set their sights on full voting representation for the city in Congress. They timed their push to coincide with the bicentennial, when Americans would celebrate the patriots who had fought against the very “taxation without representation” that Washingtonians still endured.
Their vehicle was the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, a measure that would treat the city “as though it were a state” for the purposes of congressional representation. Although liberal Democrats such as D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) championed the D.C. VRA, Republicans also offered critical support. Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) served as co-chairman of the Self-Determination for D.C. Coalition, and Republican National Committee Chairman Bill Brock of Tennessee labored to ensure that the 1976 GOP platform endorsed full voting representation for the District in Congress.
Although D.C. VRA backers fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority in 1976, they retooled and two years later waged a stunningly successful campaign — with Republicans in Congress lending crucial aid. For many moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Stewart McKinney (Conn.), ensuring voting representation in Congress for 600,000 of his fellow citizens was “a simple matter of justice.” Few could argue with this logic. Even Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), the principal opponent of the legislation in the House, suggested the alternative of giving the city a voting member in the lower chamber.
For others, the calculation was purely political. Senator Strom Thurmond decided to support the amendment after Fauntroy and native son Jesse Jackson Sr. threatened to turn out black voters for his opponent in what was shaping up to be the closest election in the South Carolinian’s storied career. Thurmond delivered a stirring floor speech where he called congressional representation for the city a “human rights” issue and encouraged his conservative colleagues to support the legislation. His efforts secured the backing of “Mr. Conservative” himself, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
The D.C. VRA passed both chambers of Congress with broad bipartisan support. That vote sent the amendment to the states for ratification. There, however, it met ferocious opposition from a robust “New Right” movement led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a coalition of state lawmakers and business interests founded in 1973.
In August 1978, newly elected ALEC Chair Donna Carlson, a Republican Arizona state lawmaker who had dedicated much of her career to opposing Native American political power and gay rights, placed opposition to the D.C. VRA atop the group’s agenda. Flummoxed by the early success of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, affirmative action and other liberal causes, Carlson and other New Right activists worked to seize control of the Republican Party and challenge any further assaults on what they defined as traditional American values. The D.C. VRA became a particularly important target for ALEC because it would have created institutional power for a city that was 70 percent black and 90 percent Democratic.
To counter the liberal alliance behind the D.C. VRA, ALEC tapped into the broad conservative coalition that was then opposing the Equal Rights Amendment: the American Conservative Union, Conservative Caucus, Gun Owners of America, Eagle Forum and Young Americans for Freedom.
This coalition dispatched conservative commentators to testify against the amendment before state legislatures. It also published a raft of op-eds attacking the D.C. VRA as an “affirmative action program to get blacks in the Senate” and warning that District senators would be “ultra liberal Democrats” intent on pushing “federally financed abortions … gun control … [and] labor law ‘reform.’ ” ALEC then packed these critiques into beefy blue briefing booklets that they distributed to every state legislator in the country.
ALEC’s lobbying efforts decisively blunted the amendment’s early momentum. Overwhelmed by the conservative coalition’s organizing prowess and money, amendment supporters could secure only 16 ratification votes by the time it expired in 1985. Not a single Republican-controlled chamber of a state legislature voted for ratification.
As ALEC’s campaign stifled the city’s hopes before state legislatures, the 1980 election foreclosed any possibility of future Republican support for D.C. self-determination. That contest was won by Ronald Reagan, the first GOP presidential nominee since World War II to openly oppose increased D.C. self-determination (Barry Goldwater appears to have ignored the issue in 1964), and many stalwart D.C. supporters in both parties suffered defeat.
Although the Reagan revolution ended Democratic dominance of the federal government, it did not generate a new governing consensus. Instead, the parties became locked in a grinding political stalemate.
In this hyperpartisan environment where neither party could afford to give an inch, conservatives made opposition to any expansion of D.C. self-determination a bedrock of GOP orthodoxy. In every GOP platform drafted since 1984, the Republican Party has either opposed calls for a vote for D.C. in Congress or advocated a rollback of home rule.
Over the same period, conservatives in Congress turned the city into a pawn in their national policy battles with Democrats. Republicans have banned needle exchanges, forced a citywide referendum on the death penalty and imposed a charter school system, all against the will of local elected officials and voters.
And like in 1978, conservative political organizations have been at the forefront of efforts to block bills giving D.C. a vote in Congress, including Citizens United’s successful campaign against the 1993 statehood bill and the National Rifle Association’s opposition to the Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act of 2009.
Today the District is less black and more Democratic than in 1978. But no matter. Republicans long ago abandoned the idea that true democracy for District residents was a “simple matter of justice.”