The Partisan History of Reform in DC: 60 Years of Party Platforms

It is often said that DC Statehood is (simply) a partisan issue. While it is absolutely NOT a partisan issue for the people who call Washington, DC home, it's obvious that reforms like statehood do not happen in a vacuum. Much of the partisan controversy over statehood swirls around the Senate, where a narrowly divided body is extremely sensitive to the idea of adding more members. Few Americans today remember any historical statehood campaigns, but they make for illuminating episodes in our political history. During and following the Civil War, no less than 11 states were admitted to the Union -- or blocked from admission and only admitted later -- through the end of the 19th century. And Alaska spent nearly 50 years on its own campaign during the 20th century.

 

The history of the many campaigns for DC statehood (and other, lesser reforms) are equally illuminating -- and frustrating (as described elsewhere on this website). We think it is useful to look at the history of partisan attitudes towards representation, home rule and statehood for the people of DC. And while there are various American political parties, our focus here is on the two parties which have vied for control of Congress and the Presidency.

 

It might be argued that modern DC political history began with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment (1961), granting DC residents their first ever vote for President in 1964. This was followed by reforms allowing for an elected DC School Board (1966) and elected DC Council and Mayor (1973) after a full century without any local vote. For simplicity's sake, then, we begin in 1964, following adoption of the 23rd Amendment.

 

 

1964-1976: Broad Support for Congressional Representation and Local Self-Government

Historical Context:

Both the Republican and Democratic parties supported the 23rd Amendment in their Party Platforms of 1956 and 1960, and indicated support for the creation of a locally elected government.

 

The 1964 Republican Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia, while the Democratic Party Platform stated,

"We support home rule for the District of Columbia. ... We also support a constitutional amendment giving the District voting representation in Congress, and, pending such action, the enactment of legislation providing for a non-voting delegate...in the House of Representatives." 

 

The 1968 Republican and Democratic Party platforms both voiced support for Congressional representation, though the Democratic Platform specifically called for a Constitutional Amendment: 

Republican: "We specifically favor representation in Congress for the District of Columbia." 

Democratic: "The Democratic Party supports...a Constitutional amendment to grant [full] citizenship through voting representation in Congress."

On the matter of self-government, the two platforms were essentially the same:

Republican: "We will work to establish a system of self-government for the District of Columbia...."

Democratic: "We support a...charter commission -- controlled by District residents -- to determine the most appropriate form of government for the District...."

 

The 1972 and 1976 Republican and Democratic Party platforms repeated their language from 1968, though the Democratic Platform deleted any specific mention of a Constitutional amendment. 

 

 

1980-1984: DC Voting Rights Amendment Era

Historical Context:

In 1978, DC Delegate Walter Fauntroy introduced the DC Voting Rights Amendment, a Constitional amendment designed to provide full Congressional representation for the District of Columbia. This legislation passed the US House and Senate by a required two-thirds majority  before going to the states for ratification. (38 states were required to ratify, but only 16 states did so prior to the 1985 deadline.) Meanwhile, a state constitutional convention produced a constitution for the proposed State of New Columbia, which was approved by DC voters in 1982.

 

Neither the 1980 nor 1984 Republican Party platforms made any mention of the District of Columbia. The 1980 Democratic Party Platform referenced the passage of the DC Voting Rights Amendment in Congress:

"Both the ERA and District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendments to the Constitution must be ratified...." 

 

The 1984 Democratic Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia.

 

 

1988-2000: Support and Opposition for DC Statehood

Historical Context:

In the wake of the failure of the DC Voting Rights Amendment, DC Statehood came to the fore. But by the early 1990s, Washington, DC was facing both a fiscal crisis and a widely publicized local corruption scandal. Congress took away many of the powers of the Mayor and Council in the mid-1990s, placing the city government under a federal Financial Control Board. DC finances returned to a stronger position by 2000.

 

The 1988 Republican Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia. The Democratic Party Platform stated,

"We believe that this country's democratic processes must be revitalized...by supporting statehood for the District of Columbia...."

 

The 1992 Democratic Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia. The Republican Party Platform stated,

"We call for closer and responsible Congressional scrutiny of the city...and tighter fiscal restraints over its expenditures. We oppose statehood as inconsistent with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution...."

 

The 1996 Republican Party Platform echoed the language of 1992 in more critical language, stating,

"We reaffirm the constitutional status of the District of Columbia as the seat of government of the United States and reject calls for statehood for the District."

The 1996 Democratic Party Platform returned to language which echoed its 1988 platform: 

"[W]e believe all Americans have a right to fair political representation -- including the citizens of the District of Columbia who deserve full self-governance, political representation, and statehood."

 

The 2000 Republican Party Platform was much the same as 1992 and 1996, focusing on maintaining the entire District as a federal zone: 

"We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution that our nation's capital has a unique status and should remain independent of any individual state."

The 2000 Democratic Party Platform was much the same as 1996:

"The citizens of the District of Columbia are entitled to autonomy in the conduct of their civic affairs, full political representation as Americans who are fully taxed, and statehood."

 

 

2004-2012: The Voting Rights Era

Historical Context:

DC Statehood exited the political stage in the 2000s, replaced by legislation designed to expand local autonomy and provide limited Congressional representation, most notably the bipartisan DC House Voting Rights Act to provide a single voting Representative to the District. These bills stalled repeatedly due to the inclusion of non-germane amendments regarding local DC laws on abortion and gun control.

 

The 2004 Republican Party Platform repeated language from 2000 ("We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution..."), adding in regard to the District's strengthening financial position, 

"[W]e support yielding more budgetary and legal autonomy to local elected officials."

The 2004 and 2008 Democratic Party Platforms both stated,

"As we encourage democracy around the world, we must extend democracy here at home. We support equal rights to democratic self-government and Congressional representation for the citizens of our nation's capital."

 

The 2008 Republican Party Platform was largely unchanged, though it jettisoned its language from 2000 and 2004 ("We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution...") in favor of less explicit language which continued to emphasize the maintenance of federal control:

"The nation's capital is a special responsibility of the federal government. ... Washington should be made a model city."

 

The 2012 Republican Party Platform made no specific mention of the District of Columbia beyond brief references to the District in regard to the issues of abortion and the Second Amendment. The 2012 Democratic Party Platform stated,

"The American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., like the citizens of the 50 states, should have full and equal congressional rights and the right to have the laws and budget of their local government respected without congressional interference."

 

 

2016: The Return of DC Statehood

Historical Context:

Both parties addressed statehood for the first time since 2000. Party conventions took place as DC voters gathered to discuss a new draft state constitution. A local referendum on statehood passed overwhelmingly (85%) at the end of 2016.

 

The 2016 Republican Party Platform addressed the District in much greater detail and in much more hostile language than any previous platform. The statement began, echoing previous platforms,

"The nation's capital city is a special responsibility of the federal government," adding, "because it belongs both to its residents and to all Americans, millions of whom visit it every year. ... We call for Congressional action to enforce the spirit of the Home Rule Act, assuring minority representation in the City Council. That council, backed by the current mayor, is attempting to seize from the Congress its appropriating power over all funding for the District. The illegality of their action mirrors the unacceptable spike in violent crime and murders currently afflicting the city. We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional prerogatives regarding the District."

Regarding statehood specifically, the platform asserted,

"Statehood for the District can be advanced only by a constitutional amendment. Any other approach would be invalid. A statehood amendment was soundly rejected by the states when last proposed in 1976 and should not be revived."

In fact, the DC Voting Rights Amendment, which was sent to the states following passage in Congress in 1978, would have provided for full Congressional representation, but not statehood. Beyond its opposition to statehood, the 2016 Republican Party platform appeared to reject any other efforts to reform the District's political status.

 

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform stated,

"Restoring our democracy also means passing statehood for the District of Columbia, so that the American citizens who reside in the nation's capital have full and equal congressional rights as well as the right to have the laws and budget of their local government respected without Congressional interference."

 

 

Conclusion: 6 Decades of Shifting But Unpredictable Political Winds

America's two major parties started out in the 1960s and 1970s largely agreed in favor of Congressional representation and self-government for the people of the District of Columbia. In the 1980s, the parties said little, though statehood emerged in the Democratic Party platform following the failure of the DC Voting Rights Amendment. In the 1990s, both parties retreated on reform, with Republicans voicing opposition to statehood. In the 2000s and 2010s, support for Congressional representation and self-government reemerged in the Democratic Party platform, while Republicans reaffirmed their platforms from the 1990s, focusing on preserving Washington, DC as a city under federal control. Following the reintroduction of statehood legislation in 2012, the 2016 Democratic and Republican Party platforms represent a wider partisan split than ever before on the District of Columbia. 

 

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