The Partisan History of Reform in DC: 60 Years of Party Platforms
It is often said that DC Statehood is (simply) a partisan issue. And it's clear that reforms like statehood do not happen in a vacuum. Much of the partisan controversy swirls around the Senate, where a narrowly divided body is extremely sensitive to the idea of adding two more members. Earlier efforts to add states to the Union provided for numerous fascinating episodes in American history. Alaska spent nearly 50 years on its own campaign. The history of the many campaigns for DC equality are equally fascinating -- and frustrating (as described elsewhere on this website). We think it might be useful to look at the history of partisan attitudes towards DC representation, home rule and statehood. And while there are many political parties in America, 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
Both parties supported the 23rd Amendment in their Platforms of 1956 and 1960, and indicated support for the creation of a locally elected government.
In 1964, the Republican Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia, while the Democratic 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."
In 1968, the 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 platforms repeated their language from 1968, though the Democratic Platform deleted any further specific mention of a Constitutional amendment.
1980-1984: DC Voting Rights Amendment Era
In 1978, DC Delegate Walter Fauntroy introduced the DC Voting Rights Amendment, a Constitional amendment designed to provide 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.) A state constitutional convention produced a state constitution for the proposed State of New Columbia which was approved by DC voters in 1982.
Neither the 1980 nor 1984 Republican platforms made any mention of the District of Columbia. The 1980 Democratic 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 Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia.
1988-2000: Support and Opposition for DC Statehood
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.
In 1988, the Republican Platform made no mention of the District of Columbia. The Democratic Platform stated,
"We believe that this country's democratic processes must be revitalized...by supporting statehood for the District of Columbia...."
In 1992, 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...."
In 1996, the Republican 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 Platform of 1996 returned to language echoing 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."
In 2000, the Republican Party Platform was much the same as 1992 and 1996, though less sharply critical of the District:
"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 Democratic 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
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 Democratic Platform in both 2004 and 2008 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."
In 2008, the Republican 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 Platform made no specific mention of the District of Columbia beyond brief references to the District in regard to the platform statements on the issues of abortion and the Second Amendment. The Democratic 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
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 Republican 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, it stated,
"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 platform appeared to reject other efforts to reform the District's political status.
The Democratic 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 began largely in agreement in the 1960s and 1970s on the need for Congressional representation and self-government for residents of the District of Columbia. In the 1980s, the parties said little, though statehood emerged in the Democratic platform in the wake of the failure of the DC Voting Rights Amendment. By the early 1990s, both parties retreated on reform, with Republicans voicing opposition to statehood. In the 2000s and 2010s, support for Congressional representation and increased self-government reemerged in the Democratic platform, while Republicans reaffirmed their platforms from the 1990s, focusing on preserving the District's historical status as a city under federal control. Following the reintroduction of statehood legislation in 2012, the 2016 Democratic and Republican platforms represent a much wider split than ever before on the issue of District of Columbia.
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