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Yes, Congress can abolish DC's government.

Congress gave the District political autonomy nearly 50 years ago. While unlikely, they do have the authority to take that autonomy away.

WASHINGTON — Some may know Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) as the congressman who wears his combat boots in the halls of the Capitol. But if you live in D.C., you may know him as the congressman trying to change the city’s government. 

Over the last several weeks, Rep. Clyde has floated the idea of scrapping the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973, the law that gives local autonomy to the District and established its branches of government, including the D.C. Council and the mayor's office. Clyde’s office confirmed he is working to formally introduce such legislation. 

Rep. Clyde has previously said that D.C. is a federal district and not a state, meaning that the federal government should have authority over the city’s day-to-day affairs. His comments have sparked rebuttal from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, saying his proposal would turn D.C. into a “colony.” 


Does Congress have the power to overturn D.C.’s local government authorized by the Home Rule Act of 1973? 



This is true.

Yes, Congress can legally repeal the Home Rule Act, which would abolish D.C.’s government. 


First, it is important to recap the history of D.C. autonomy to understand our current form of government. 

For decades, authority over D.C. transitioned from one system to another. At one point, both Maryland and Virginia had authority over certain parts of D.C. And most recently before our current autonomy, the president appointed three commissioners to govern the District. 

But Dr. Michael Fauntroy said that the real push for greater autonomy came at the end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, sparked by D.C. residents who had relatives in the South and witnessed their activism. 

“Those connections helped to create an environment in which D.C. activists – who for decades have been pushing for greater say in the local government – could actually bring about a Home Rule Act that will create an elected legislature and elected mayor and so on and so forth,” Fauntroy said. 

And that is precisely what happened: Congress approved the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon and went into effect in 1975. The act formalized a degree of autonomy from the federal government and also included the D.C. charter, essentially the District’s constitution which established the roles and responsibilities of the council and mayor. 

D.C.’s home rule is different from other states’ autonomy in that Congress must still approve any bill codified by D.C.'s government. The president is responsible for setting up the judicial branch, and residents have no formal congressional representation. But Fauntory says that another key difference is that D.C.’s home rule is legislative whereas states’ is constitutional: in other words, the Constitution guarantees states’ home rule, while D.C.’s was granted by a law, which like any other type of legislation, can be repealed. 

But it’s not just about the ability to repeal a law. Professor Louis Michael Seidman said that Article 1 Section 8 Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that Congress has “exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever,” means that the federal government can essentially administer the District however it chooses, including the abolishment of local government. 

“I think it is pretty clear that under this provision, Congress could abolish the city government and establish whatever governmental system it chose, including direct rule by Congress,” Seidman said. 

The process for repealing the Home Rule Act would then be just like any other legislation, according to Fauntroy. The bill would first be introduced on the floor of the House or Senate, then hearings and debate would take place in a committee (in this case either the House’s Committee on Oversight and Reform or the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs). If approved by the committee, both the House and Senate would then have to amend and vote on the bill, at which point it would be sent off for the president to sign into law. 

However, both Fauntroy and Seidman agree that such action is highly unlikely, given that legislation limiting local democracy is highly controversial and has minimal support from Clyde’s Republican colleagues. Moreover, Fauntroy said that giving authority to Congress over D.C.’s affairs would create a “significant mess.”

“What we have right now, while not perfect, is certainly better than anything we've ever had in the history of the District of Columbia,” he said. 

So, while repealing D.C.’s Home Rule Act and local government is highly unlikely, we can verify that Congress does have the authority to do so. 

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