Four Decades After Getting Home Rule, The Fight In D.C. Goes On


All right. We're going to shift gears now and bring you a different sort of twist on today's House and Home show. This one is about home rule. It's been 40 years since President Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act, which granted Washington, D.C. an elected mayor and legislature. Before that, Congress and a group of presidentially appointed commissioners pretty much ruled the roost in D.C. They made decisions about everything from how to license your dog, to how to become a police officer. Martin Austermuhle takes us back through time to when the District got its first taste of political autonomy.


December 1973 is technically the moment that the Home Rule Act became law, but if you want to understand how that happened you have to reach back a bit further in time.


To talk about the passage of the act in 1973, you actually have to go back nearly a decade earlier, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.


That's Michael Fauntroy, a professor of political science at Howard University, who has written extensively about the history of home rule in D.C. He says that the Civil Rights Movement's success with the Voting Rights Act, paved the way for District residents to finally govern themselves.


Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the House District Committee had been dominated by conservative Southern Democrats who had always bottled up home rule legislation, notwithstanding the success it had in the Senate. And so in that way home rule became a civil rights question for a number of people. Why is it that this majority black city is not allowed to have the political autonomy that it should relative to the rest of the country?


Laying the groundwork for the Home Rule Act fell to Michael Fauntroy's uncle, Walter Fauntroy. In 1971 he was chosen to be the District’s first-ever non-voting delegate to Congress. And with the strength of the civil rights movement behind him, Fauntroy used his perch on the Hill to marshal support for a bill granting D.C. home rule.


Then he developed a map that he carried around with a huge case, where he pinpointed all those congressional districts where the black vote was the margin of victory. And that’s where he would travel.


Johnny Barnes, an attorney in D.C. and former head of the ACLU of the nation's capital, was Fauntroy's chief of staff on the Hill. Barnes says Fauntroy not only used the power of oratory to make his case for home rule, but also played a strategic political game with his fellow members of Congress.


I would say that was maybe singularly most responsible for our obtaining home rule, was the work that he did, quietly, uneventfully, behind the scenes, helping members get back for reelection.


In 1972 Fauntroy landed one of his biggest victories, helping to defeat Rep. John McMillan, a South Carolina Democrat who for years had governed D.C. from his perch on the House District Committee.


Johnny McMillan refused to bring up the Home Rule Bill, and so Mr. Fauntroy went to South Carolina and he joined with a young South Carolinian by the name of John Jenrette. So he went down there and he said to the black folks in South Carolina, I need your hep -- you don’t say help down there, you say hep, I need your hep -- and they hepped him and they got Johnny McMillan out of office, and then Charlie Diggs became the chair of the House District Committee, and that’s how we were able to loosen up the Home Rule Act.


But as much as the bill was a historic step forward for the District, the home rule that granted the city was still limited. Despite Walter Fauntroy's advocacy, the bill prohibited the District from taxing the income of nonresidents, leaving the city to lose billions in tax revenue. It also left final budget decisions to Congress, meaning that while D.C. residents paid billions in taxes, the city's purse strings were ultimately controlled from Capitol Hill.


Nelson Rimensnyder was an aide to Charles Diggs, Michigan Democrat who took over the House District Committee after McMillan lost reelection. He says Diggs had to balance what D.C. residents wanted and what Congress was willing to give. A more liberal Senate bill that gave D.C. more control over its own budget and legislation was a step too far, he says.


Whip counts were done, and the Senate version was not going to pass. And Diggs and other Democrats worried that if it went down, it wouldn't have bode well for getting anything through that Congress.


The compromised Home Rule bill passed the House with 272 votes and the Senate with 77 votes. In a 1982 interview with The Washington Times, Walter Fauntroy said that while the bill wasn't perfect, it was a step forward.


We came out with a respectable Home Rule Charter that enabled us to elect our own mayor, our own city council and give them many delegated powers that the Congress had had.


Sill, Johnny Barnes says some advocates for D.C. statehood were nonetheless unhappy with the final product.


Julius Hobson used to call it the reservation without the buffalo. He’d say, we got the reservation without the buffalo, that’s what we got. So there were critics.


Forty years after the Home Rule Act passed, D.C. finds itself struggling for many of the same things it didn’t get in 1973, such as full voting representation in Congress and budget autonomy. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate to the House, says the District is still stuck between what she says it deserves -- full statehood -- and what it can get.


In the fight toward equality with other Americans, the District has always been forced into incrementalism. And I don’t know if it'll ever get out of that, since if you look at even national legislation, that’s the way things happen in this diverse country. But we are trying mightily to get out of it.


Johnny Barnes, who supports full statehood, recognizes that the Home Rule Act was a product of compromise, but, he says, its passage still stands as a historic marker in the city’s fight for full equality.


But a lot of folks have recognized over time that we didn’t go far enough, haven’t gone far enough and more needs to be done. Bit mustering the political will -- particularly in this climate, it’s so toxic and partisan -- is not easy, and that’s why the Home Rule Act was such a victory, even with its watered down principles.


I'm Martin Austermuhle.


Want to hear more from the man who helped D.C. get home rule? We have the full audio of Walter Fauntroy's 1982 interview with The Washington Times on our website,
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