Council 101: Understanding the Council, by the numbers

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). It's important to take a step back and explore some basic terms which we and others possibly use too glibly, without ever explaining exactly what is meant by them.

Home Rule

In considering recent District political history, the necessary point of origin is the establishment of Home Rule in 1974.  For much of the century prior to that, the District was governed by three presidentially-appointed commissioners.  From 1967 to 1974, the District was governed by a single mayor-commissioner and a nine-member council, but all were still appointed by the President.

It was only with Congress’ passage of the Home Rule Act in 1974 that District residents received the right to elect their own local government.  Incidentally, passage of the Home Rule Act followed exactly one decade after District residents first voted in Presidential elections (the District’s previous local political victory). This was the result of the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the US Constitution in 1961, but since Presidential elections happen only once every four years, the first election DC participated in did not occur until 1964. Prior to 1964, for nearly a century, District residents literally elected no one.

Council Periods              

Having established the creation of Home Rule as the Date Zero of local politics, it is logical that all subsequent Council activity is enumerated from that starting point.  In the election held in November of 1974, thirteen Councilmembers were elected, and when their terms of office began in January of 1975, so did Council Period One.

Every two years since, when the new Councilmembers elected the previous November take office in January, a new Council Period begins, and is numbered sequentially.  Absent any resignations or deaths, the idea is that the roster of Councilmembers during any given Council Period will remain the same throughout those two years.

A final element of relevance related to Council Periods—any legislation (with very few exceptions) introduced during a given Council Period that is not approved by the Council by the last day of that Council Period dies through lack of action, and must be re-introduced in the new Council Period.


From a DC policy wonk’s perspective, perhaps the most central (and intriguing) element tied to the shift in Council Periods is the number, membership, and jurisdiction of the Council’s committees. The sum of these decisions is known as “Reorganization.” As each new Council Period begins, the Council Chair considers how the subject matter addressed by the Council would best be organized, then meets with each Councilmember and ascertains his/her interests.

At some times in the Council’s history, each Councilmember was given a committee to chair. At other times, including currently, the number of committees is more limited, with committee chairs assigned based on tenure or other considerations.   For example, at different times in the Council’s history, newly-elected councilmember have not been given Committee chairs until they have been in office for a full two-year Council Period.


Legislative Meetings

If Council Periods are the two-year units that measure how far we have come from the time of Home Rule, then Legislative Meetings indicate how far into each Council Period we have come.   On the first Tuesday of each month, the full Council meets to consider legislation, and this is considered a “regular” legislative meeting.  If, prior to the next monthly meeting, legislative action is needed, then an “additional legislative meeting” can be scheduled by the Chair.  Every legislative meeting, whether regular or additional, is numbered sequentially.