by Mark David Richards, PhD, 2002

Throughout their history, citizens of the District of Columbia have never been granted Equal Constitutional Rights in the United States, and they have rarely enjoyed "Home Rule," or local self-government. Their local government has been changed frequently at the will of Congress, and has often been unelected. They pay full federal and District (equivalent to state) taxes.

MAIN SOURCES: Diner, Steven J. Democracy, Federalism, and the Governance of the Nation's Capital, 1790-1974. Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy, University of the District of Columbia; and records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Multiple Governments, Unelected and Elected


Washington City and unincorporated rural areas of District governed by 3-member Board of Commissioners. Locally-elected governments of George Town and Alexandria City left intact. George Town under Maryland law, Alexandria City under Virginia law.


Congress divides District into two counties-former Maryland area Washington County, former Virginia area Alexandria County. Court system and Presidentially appointed marshal, district attorney, justices of the peace, and other officials.

Combined Unelected and Elected Government


Congress abolishes Board of Commissioners, incorporates Washington City, establishes limited self- government with Presidentially-appointed mayor and twelve-member city council elected by free white male property owners with one year residence. Five members serve as upper house, seven serve as lower house. Georgetown and Alexandria governments left intact. No self-government for unincorporated counties.


Congress extends 1802 charter fifteen years, provides direct elections of both houses of the Council, each with nine members.

Elected Government


Congress provides for election of the mayor by the two houses of the Council. Enlarges the Council with an 8-member Board of Aldermen (two from each of four wards) elected for two-year terms, and a twelve-member Common Council (three from each of four wards), elected for one-year terms.


Congress extends 1812 charter, provides for election of mayor by popular vote (white male property owners).


Congress votes to allow Alexandria City and Alexandria County to retrocede to Virginia. Residents of Alexandria City approve. Residents of Alexandria County, who disapproved, excluded from vote.


Congress approves new charter allowing voters to elect Board of Assessors (1-member from each ward), the register, the collector, and surveyor. Abolishes property qualifications for voting, extends voting rights to all white male voters who pay $1 yearly school tax.

Combined Unelected and Elected Government


Congress establishes territorial government with Presidentially-appointed territorial governor, upper house, & Board of Public Works, & popularly elected lower house & non-voting delegate to House of Reps.

Unelected Government


Congress abolishes territorial government and gives President authority, with advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint 3-member commission and officer of the Army Corps of Engineers to temporarily govern.


Congress passes Organic Act providing for 3 Presidentially-appointed commissioners (2 civilians and local residents for at least 3 years and 1 officer of the Army Corps of Engineers), payment of 50% of the District's annual budget with Congressional approval of annual budget and any contract over $1,000 for public works. Federal court system. [In 1919, Congress reduces federal payment to 40%. In 1925, Congress abandons fixed percentage federal payment, gives commissioners authority to raise local taxes.]


Reorganization Plan transfers to the three commissioners functions of over 50 boards.


23rd Amendment grants District residents right to vote for President. Opposed by all border and southern states, except Tennessee.


Congress approves reorganization plan submitted by President. Abolishes Board of Commissioners and replaces with Presidentially-appointed single commissioner as executive head of District government, deputy commissioner, and nine-member city council.


Congress grants right to popular election of Board of Education.


President Nixon signs bill recreating the office of the non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. Congress passes District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act reorganizing court system. Separates federal from local courts, assigns all cases of original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Local courts gain similar powers to state courts.

Elected Government with Congressional Oversight


Congress passes and President signs District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act. Provides for popularly elected mayor, 13-member Council with legislative authority over "all rightful subjects of legislation," with restrictions-prohibits taxing federal property, federal exemptions, or income of non-District residents who work in the District; changing height limitation for buildings; altering court system, or changing the criminal code until 1977, after which time any changes could be vetoed by single House of Congress. On all legislative acts of Council, Congress retains right to review and overturn if both houses vote within 30 legislative days. District budget requires approval of Congress and President. President appoints District judges from list of three nominees per position, provided by 7-member Judicial Nominating Commission. A "floating" federal payment for services and tax-exempt status continued. In 1974, District citizens approved the partial home rule charter.


Congress passes and President signs law creating Presidentially-appointed District of Columbia Financial Control Board and a mayor-appointed Chief Financial Officer.

Combined Unelected and Elected Government



Congress passes and President signs National Capital Revitalization and Self Government Act, stripping authority from all locally elected representatives and transferring day-to-day control of 9 of 12 agencies to appointed Control Board. Bill provides $200 million in debt relief, takes back unfunded $5 billion pension liability transferred from federal government to District government in 1974, and takes over Medicaid, courts, and prisons ("state functions"). In 2001, after four consecutive DC balanced budgets, locally elected officials regained authority over the aspects of local affairs granted in the Home Rule Charter - but they still do not have legislative, judicial, or budgetary autonomy.