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

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, 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 sensitive to the idea of adding more members. Relatively few Americans remember the history surrounding the change from 48 to 50 states, let alone 46 to 48, but they make for illuminating episodes in our political (and partisan) history. From 1861 to 1896, no less than a dozen states (#34 through #45) were admitted to the Union -- or blocked from admission and only admitted later. Alaska spent nearly 50 years on its own campaign during the 20th century.


The history of the many campaigns for DC statehood (and other reforms) are equally illuminating -- and frustrating. We think it is useful to look at the history of Democratic and Republican Party attitudes towards representation, home rule and statehood for the people of DC. In looking at how party platforms have changed, take note especially of the contrast between Republican support for DC between 1956 and 1976 versus the hostility toward DC which emerged in the 1990s and intensified in the 2010s.


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), Council and Mayor (1973-74) after a full century without ANY right to vote in DC. For simplicity's sake, then, we begin in 1960, just prior to adoption of the 23rd Amendment.



1960-1976: Broad Support for Congressional Representation and Local Self-Government

Historical Context:

Starting in 1956, both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms expressed support for voting rights for the residents of the District of Columbia, including a local Mayor and Council, President (23rd Amendment) and Representative and Senators in Congress. Elected local government was reestablished (after a full century without any locally elected officials) starting with an elected School Board in 1966 and an elected Mayor and Council starting in 1974.


The 1960 Republican Party Platform voiced support for voting rights for both local and national offices:

"Republicans will continued to work for Congressional representation and self-government for the District of Columbia and also support the constitutional amendment [(the 23rd Amendment of 1961)] granting suffrage in national elections." 


The 1964 Republican Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia, while the Democratic Party Platform stated support for home rule and "a constitutional amendment giving the District voting representation in Congress" (the future 1978 DC Voting Rights Amendment).


The 1968 Republican and Democratic Party platforms both voiced support for self-government and for representation in Congress in much the same language as 1960 and 1964, Republicans explaining, "we specifically favor representation in Congress for the District of Columbia" and Democrats calling for a "Constitutional Amendment to grant [full] citizenship through voting representation in Congress." 


The 1972 and 1976 Republican and Democratic Party platforms essentially repeated their 1968 Platforms, though the Democratic Platform deleted further mention of a Constitutional amendment.


Republican: "We support voting representation for the District of Columbia in the United States Congress and will work for a system of self-government for the city which takes fair account of the needs and interests of both the Federal Government and the citizens of the District of Columbia." (The DC Home Rule Act, the federal law which serves as the District of Columbia's de facto state constitution, was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1973.)

Democratic: "Full home rule for the District of Columbia, including an elected mayor-city council government, broad legislative power, control over appointments, automatic federal payment and voting representation in both Houses of Congress"


Republican: "We giving the District of Columbia voting representation in the United States Senate and House of Representatives and full home rule over those matters that are purely local."

Democratic: "We support...full home rule for the District of Columbia, including authority over its budget and local revenues, elimination of federal restrictions in matters which are purely local and voting representation in the Congress"



1978: The DC Voting Rights Amendment

DC's first non-voting Delegate, Walter Fauntroy, pursued a strategy to win DC residents representation in the House and Senate by means of a Constitutional amendment. This strategy came to fruition in 1978, when the House (in March) and the Senate (in August) each passed a Joint Resolution (H.J.Res. 554, introduced by Rep. Don Edwards of CA) by the required two-thirds majority. The Resolution was then sent to the states for ratification.


In the House, Democrats voted 226 (77%) in favor to 48 (16%) against. Among Republicans, the vote was 63 (44%) in favor to 79 (55%) opposed. 


In the Senate, Democrats voted 48 (79%) in favor to 12 (20%) against. Among Republicans, the vote was split 19 in favor to 19 against. Republican senators supporting the Amendment included:

Sen. Howard Baker (TN) (Republican Senate Minority Leader)

Sen. Edward Brooke (MA)

Sen. Clifford Case (NJ)

Sen. John Chafee (RI)

Sen. John Danforth (MO)

Sen. Bob Dole (KS)

Sen. Barry Goldwater (AZ)

Sen. Robert Griffin (MI)

Sen. Mark Hatfield (OR)

Sen. John Heinz (PA)

Sen. Jacob Javits (NY)

Sen. Richard Lugar (IN)

Sen. Charles Mathias (MD)

Sen. Bob Packwood (OR)

Sen. James Pearson (KS)

Sen. Charles Percy (IL)

Sen. Robert Stafford (VT)

Sen. Strom Thurmond (SC)

Sen. Lowell Weicker (CT)


1980-1984: DC Voting Rights Amendment Era and Failure to Ratify

Historical Context:

With the passage of the DC Voting Rights Amendment by a two-thirds majority in Congress, the proposed amendment would next require three-fourths of the states -- 38 -- to be ratified, but the rules set an additional requirement of a 7-year deadline for ratification. Only 16 state legislatures succeeded in passing the Amendment before the deadline expired in 1985. Meanwhile, DC residents convened a state constitutional convention to draft a constitution for the proposed State of New Columbia, which was approved by DC voters in 1982.


The 1980 Democratic Party Platform noted the recent passage of the DC Voting Rights Amendment in Congress, calling for ratification:

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


Neither the 1980 nor 1984 Republican Party platforms made any mention of the District of Columbia.


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, the debate returned to DC statehood. But by the early 1990s, Washington, DC was facing both a fiscal crisis and a widely publicized local Mayoral corruption scandal. Congress took away many of the powers of the Mayor and Council in the 1990s, placing the city under a federal Financial Control Board. DC finances returned to a stronger position by 2000.



The 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 supporting statehood for the District of Columbia...."


The 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 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 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 full 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 (Incremental) Voting Rights Era

Historical Context:

DC Statehood exited the political stage in the late 1990s, replaced by legislation designed to expand local autonomy and provide limited representation in Congress, 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 insertion of non-germane amendments to the bill regarding local DC laws on politically sensitive issues such as abortion and gun laws.



The Republican Party Platform repeated its language from 2000 ("We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution..."), adding in regard to the District's stronger finances, 

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

The Democratic Party Platform 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 Republican Party Platform was largely unchanged, but 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 Democratic Party Platform repeated its language from 2004.


The Republican Party Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia beyond brief references to the District in regard to the issues of abortion and the Second Amendment. The 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."



2016-2020: The Return of DC Statehood

Historical Context:

Both parties addressed statehood directly for the first time since 2000. Party conventions took place as DC voters gathered to draft a new state constitution. A local referendum on statehood passed overwhelmingly (86%) at the end of 2016.



The 2016 Republican Party Platform addressed the District in much more hostile language than any previous platform:

"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 (sic) was soundly rejected by the states when last proposed in 1976 (sic) 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 rejected any reform to 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."



The 2020 Democratic Party Platform stated,

"It's time to stop treating the more than 700,000 people who live in our nation's capital as second-class citizens. The residents of Washington, DC pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state in the country -- and more in total federal income tax than 22 states -- and yet the District has zero voting representatives in the US Congress. The Congress retains broad power to override budget decisions made by democratically elected officials in Washington, DC. And as was made shockingly clear to the American people this year, under current law, Washington, DC does not have control over its own National Guard units and can be occupied by military forces at the President’s whim.

The citizens of Washington, D.C.—a majority of whom are people of color -- voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood in a 2016 referendum and have ratified a state constitution. Democrats unequivocally support statehood for Washington, DC, so the citizens of the District can at last have full and equal representation in Congress and the rights of self-determination."


The Republican Party did not issue a Party Platform in 2020.



Conclusion: 6 Decades of Shifting Political Winds -- from Calm Breezes to Big Storms 

Republicans and Democrats started out very much in agreement during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with many in both parties supporting self-government and equal representation for the people of Washington, DC. In the 1980s, the parties said little following the failure of the states to ratify a Constitutional Amendment, leading to the emergence of DC statehood in the Democratic platform. In the early 1990s, both parties retreated, but Democrats returned to supporting statehood, while Republicans began to voice opposition both to statehood and their own previous support for Congressional representation. In the 2000s and 2010s, support for Congressional representation and broader self-government reappeared in the Democratic platform, while Republicans focused on defining Washington, DC as a city under federal control. The 2016 Democratic and Republican platforms represent a much broader division between the parties than ever before. (The Republican Party did not issue a platform in 2020, while the Democratic Party continued to express support, passing DC statehood legislation in the House in June 2020 and again in June 2021.) 


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