50 Years of Home Rule is Within Sight as the Council Begins A New Council Period

1973 and 1974 were big years for democracy in the District of Columbia.

On December 23, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, also known as the Home Rule Act. On May 7, 1974, District residents approved via referendum both the Home Rule Charter and the creation of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

On November 5, 1974, for the first time in a century, District voters elected their mayor and council. And on January 2, 1975, 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. The Council met for the first time that day (a Thursday), then, on the following Tuesday (the day of the week the prior, presidentially-appointed DC Council met, and the day of the week the Home Rule Council continues to meet on), at a Committee of the Whole meeting, they named the council’s committees and membership. Council Period One, consisting essentially of calendar years 1975 and 1976, had begun.

Fast-forward 48 years. Once again, as mandated by the Home Rule Act, the mayor and councilmembers elected this past November were sworn into office on January 2 to begin Council Period 25, which will consist essentially of calendar years 2023 and 2024. Given that Council Periods last two years, and the one newly underway is the 25th, on the day it ends, Home Rule in the District of Columbia will be fifty years old. Along the way, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of each of the key dates mentioned above.

Until then, though, we have the initial dates of the current Council Period to appreciate. On January 2, Council Chair Phil Mendelson, At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3 Councilmember Matthew Frumin, Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker, and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Brian Schwalb, newly-elected State Board of Education and shadow statehood delegation members, and every Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner present, were sworn in.

The following day, the Council held both its Organizational Meeting and its first Legislative Meeting, providing Councilmembers Frumin and Parker with their first official seat at the dais, as well as Councilmember McDuffie’s first in his new role. At the Organizational Meeting, the Council approved its rules, including the names, agency jurisdiction lists, and membership of its various committees. Given the recent tradition that newly-elected members do not chair committees, Councilmembers Frumin and Parker were not assigned committee chairs, while the members entering their sophomore terms (Councilmembers Henderson, Lewis George, and Pinto) were each granted their inaugural committee chair roles.

While the approved Council rules largely mirrored those of the prior Council Period, there were three notable changes. One specifies that any councilmember facing discipline at the hands of the Council will, as always, be able to participate in the proceedings, but will no longer be allowed to participate in the final vote on whether they will be sanctioned. Second, the new rules modify the timing of the submission of a Racial Equity Impact Analysis (REIA) by the Council’s Office of Racial Equity (CORE). At the request of CORE, initial REIAs will now be submitted after closure of the public hearing record, instead of the prior deadline, which led to a late-session backlog in the CORE office. And third, the new rules include a requirement that all administration witnesses be sworn in prior to any committee testimony (previously this decision was left to each committee chair).

Since the legislative process fades to black at the end of one Council Period, and restarts as the next one begins, the agenda at the first Legislative Meeting was, by definition, sparse. A rare carryover was the second of two needed votes on a temporary version of a bill to restructure the board of the DC Housing Authority. Temporary bills are effective for 225 days and bridge the time necessary for permanent legislation to become effective.

The Council’s next Legislative Meeting is currently scheduled for February 7, but an Additional Legislative Meeting may be scheduled for January 17 to allow for a timely override vote on a mayoral veto of the Council’s criminal code rewrite legislation.