50 Years of Home Rule for DC: The Council Begins a Year of Celebration

50 years ago this weekend, on Christmas Eve in 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the DC Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, better known to the residents of the District as the Home Rule Act. That federal law allowed us to elect our own Council and mayor for the first time in nearly a century.

This weekend’s anniversary will kick off a year of Home Rule celebrations for the Council. The highlight of the year will be when we host, in the Council Chamber, a reunion of all of the District’s current and past Councilmembers and mayors. (Stay tuned in the coming year for the announcement of the date for this photo shoot.)

We organized and hosted a similar photo shoot in 2014 for the 40th anniversary of Home Rule, when all but seven of our past Councilmembers and mayors reunited for a historic portrait. In the ten years since, we have lost some truly historic figures, and have welcomed many new elected officials. Our 50th anniversary “family photo” will once again be iconic.

Like everything about the District’s limited self-government, when it comes to celebrating Home Rule’s 50th anniversary…it’s complicated. While the 1973 Christmas Eve anniversary is clearly worth celebrating, it is important to remember a critical detail: that it is not the date DC received Home Rule, it’s simply the date the federal government formally declared they would give it to us.

Four other key dates are far more empowering from a local perspective, and important to celebrate.

  • On May 7, 1974, District residents approved via referendum both the Home Rule Charter and the creation of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
  • On September 10, 1974, the District held its first Council/mayoral election in nearly 100 years—the 1974 primary election.
  • On November 5, 1974, the District held its first Council/mayoral general election in nearly 100 years.
  • And on January 2, 1975, the most important date in this upcoming year of anniversaries, the first elected DC Council and mayor in nearly 100 years was sworn into office, and the actual Home Rule governance of the District began. On that date, as required by the Home Rule Act, Mayor Walter Washington, Council Chair Sterling Tucker, and a council that included future mayors/Council chairs Marion Barry, David Clarke, Arrington Dixon, and John A. Wilson, were sworn into office. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall swore in the mayor and Council chair.

Julius Hobson, who was sworn in as an At-Large Councilmember on that date, famously and wisely cautioned that, as Congress had set it up, the District’s “Home Rule” was nothing more than “Home Fool,” since no bill passed by the new Council, and signed by the Mayor, would become law until it had been sent to Congress for their review.

To this day, every piece of District legislation must undergo a lengthy delay (30 so-called “legislative” days for most matters, 60 “legislative” days for criminal code bills) before becoming law. As we painfully learned recently with our criminal code reform measure, a simple vote by each house of Congress, and a signature from the President, is all it takes to overturn any law passed by the duly-elected Council and mayor of the District of Columbia. “Home Fool” indeed. (Only Congressional passage of DC Statehood legislation will remedy this grievous injustice.)

We will be certain to keep everyone apprised of all key dates and Council events comprising this year of celebrations.