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Definition: District of Columbia from Philip's Encyclopedia

US federal district, coextensive (since 1890) with the capital, Washington, D.C. It was created in 1790-91, from land taken from the states of Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia portion was returned in 1846. Area: 179sq km (69sq mi)

From Political Encyclopedia of U.S. States and Regions

The politics and government of Washington, D. C., are shaped by its dual identity as both an urban center—it is one of the biggest cities on the eastern seaboard—and a federal territory that functions as the capital of the United States. Once a city within a district, Washington is now coextensive and, in effect, one and the same entity as the District of Columbia, a name often used interchangeably with the now official name Washington, D. C.

The founding of Washington, D. C., was politically motivated. State rivalries and a conflict over the economic program of Alexander Hamilton, the country's first secretary of the treasury, led to a compromise in 1790 that resulted in the establishment of the capital of the United States at a site on the Potomac River. The federal government moved there from Philadelphia, the previous capital, in 1800. When Congress created the District of Columbia, it had only 3, 000 citizens, well short of the 50, 000 required for statehood. Because of this, District citizens were originally allowed to vote in Virginia or Maryland, depend-ing on which side of the Potomac they lived on. In 1801 the District was split into two counties, each with its own laws, but citizens protested, demanding a municipal charter. In 1802, Congress acquiesced, incorporating the city and granting its citizens the right to elect a legislature. During the 1870s the governing structure was changed to a board of three commissioners appointed by the president. Numerous efforts were made between 1948 and 1966 to obtain home rule, but they all failed. In 1967, the governing structure was replaced with a presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner and nine-member city council. Finally, in 1974, the District achieved self-government, along with the ability to elect its own mayor.

Dating back to the 1790s, the District has had an above-average percentage of African-American residents. After World War II, whites began moving to the suburbs, and blacks have had a majority status in D. C. since the 1960 census. The decade of the 1960s saw great political change for the District. In 1964, through the passage of the Twenty-third Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, residents were finally granted the ability to cast electoral votes for president. Because of the high minority presence in the city, its three electoral votes have always gone for the Democratic candidate. Since 1974, local politics has also been dominated by the Democratic Party. Of all publicly elected officials, only three Republicans have won election. All three were elected as at-large members to the city council.

As is often the case with single-party dominance, Washington has had its fair share of incompetence and corruption. Prior to the 1970s, local government was inflated and undermanaged. Subsequently, payroll was exceedingly high, and from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s the city suffered a long-term financial crisis. The District's first mayor, Marion Barry, was at the forefront of the corruption. In 1990 Barry was convicted and sent to jail for using cocaine. His replacement, Sharon Pratt Kelly, ran on a platform of reform, but in reality she maintained the status quo and failed to cut the payroll. Four years later, Barry easily defeated Kelly in the Democratic mayoral primary and went on to win the general election with 56 percent of the vote. Despite this second chance, the city continued to struggle financially under Mayor Barry. With the city still in financial crisis, Congress took control over most of its government. A five-member financial board was established in April 1995, and it proceeded to cut the government payroll and reform the bureaucracy. Since 1996 the city has run balanced budgets without raising taxes, although corruption has remained a problem.

Political Environment

The overall population of Washington, D. C., has fluctuated. The population peaked at 802, 178 in 1950, but it then experienced five consecutive decades of decline, according to U. S. Census figures.

This trend was reversed from 2000 to 2006, when the District grew by 1.7 percent to 581, 530 people. Washington is a majority-minority city, with over 65 percent of its population being either African American or Hispanic. As of 2006, African Americans made up 56.5 percent and Hispanics made up 8.2 percent of the population.1

These groups all typically align with the Democratic Party, so it comes as no surprise that Washington, D. C., consistently provides Democratic presidential candidates with their largest margins of victory. The 2000 and 2004 elections reflect this: Al Gore won 76.21 percent of the vote in 2000, and John Kerry won 79.84 percent in 2004. This is not surprising, however, for in a 2002 poll, 76 percent of D. C. 's registered voters identified themselves as Democrats, compared to only 7 percent identifying as Republican. In fact, more people self-identified as independent (12%) than as Republican.2

In the 2006 elections, the Democratic mayoral candidate, Adrian Fenty, received close to 90 percent of the vote. Washington, D. C., has a nonvoting delegate in the U. S. House of Representatives, and that office has also never been held by a Republican. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat first elected in 1990, was unopposed in her 2006 bid for re-election. The district's other elected offices were also all won by Democrats in 2006, with the exception of David Catania, an independent (and former Republican) council member, who finished second in the race for at-large members of the city council, and thereby won re-election. (The one Republican on the council, Carol Schwartz, was not up for re-election in 2006. )

These demographics and the mass Democratic Party affiliation reflect a political culture that is socially liberal and economically moderate. District voters have passed ballot initiatives legalizing medical marijuana and favoring the psychological treatment of criminals over jail terms. In addition, the city council passed legislation in 2005 ensuring that all members of the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community be given a full range of business opportunities and social services. This bill also made a concerted effort to make members of this community an integral part of the larger community by establishing the Office for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs.3 Mayor Fenty has also worked on regional initiatives with Maryland and Virginia officials to emphasize a green, sustainable, and environmentally safe economy. Economically the District is more moderate, and it has not raised income taxes since the early 1990s. In addition, there are numerous tax incentives for businesses, ranging from housing development incentives to incentives for nonprofits and small business relocation. Still, liberal economic policies, such as housing subsidies, do exist.

Elections and Voting Behavior

District citizens vote at a higher rate in presidential elections than in local ones. Turnout topped 50 percent of registered voters in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, peaking at 59.94 percent in the 2004 matchup between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Still, turnout was less than the national average each time. Turnout varies widely in off-year elections, ranging from 30.9 percent in 2006 to 51.5 percent in 1994. Elections held in off-years are for the delegate to the U. S. House of Representatives, mayor, city council, and board of education.

Because of the one-party dominance in Washington, D. C., there are rarely any competitive partisan elections. Since 1994, only four elections have had a victory margin of less than 20 percent. Three of these were for the at-large members of the city council. These elections tend to attract not only candidates from the two major parties, but also a significant number of independent and third-party candidates. Support for these candidates dilutes the Democratic majority, creating decreased margins of victory. Still, the closest election for this position had a 14 percent margin of victory in 1996. The closest partisan election since the 1990s was for mayor in 1994, when the Democratic candidate (and former mayor), Marion Barry, received a “scant” 56 percent of the vote, compared to 42 percent for the Republican candidate, Carol Schwartz.


Note: Percents may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

The district has had a ballot initiative and referendum since 1978. The initiative process begins with a registered voter filing an initiative with the Board of Elections, which reviews the file to make sure it does not appropriate funds, negate a budget act, or violate the D. C. Human Rights Act of 1977. If it meets these criteria, the board approves the subject matter, publishes it in the D. C. Register, and opens it up for a 10-day challenge period. After this, the file is approved as a petition for circula-tion, and supporters have 180 days to get the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters citywide (and at least 5% in five of the eight wards).

As of 2008, 66 ballot initiatives had been proposed, with only a small percentage of these actually getting on the ballot. However, those that do make the ballot are often successful. For example, voters passed a 1998 measure to legalize medical marijuana by 69 percent, and a 2002 measure to emphasize psychological and social treatment over the jailing of criminals was approved by 78 percent of voters. In 2004, the board began considering two ballot initiatives: Measure 65, in support of a public hospital, and Measure 66, which would ban smoking in all public and private places of employment within the District. As of spring 2008 they were not yet on the ballot.

The Legislative Branch

The Council of the District of Columbia (often called the Washington, D. C., City Council) is the legislative branch in Washington, D. C. The council has 13 members, one from each of the eight wards, and an additional 5 members elected at-large. Members are elected to four-year terms, and the council chair is one of the at-large members. Roughly half of the council members are elected in presidential election years; the rest are elected in the off-year federal election. If a ward position is vacated, a special election is held to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. If an at-large seat is vacated, the central committee of the party that held the seat appoints a replacement until a special election is held.

Elections to the council are decidedly non-competitive. In 2008, for example, all but two members of the council were Democrats. The lone Republican was at-large member Carol Schwartz; David Catania, another at-large member, is an independent. Democratic electoral dominance has been the trend since D. C. citizens first elected their local legislators in 1974. Further, since 1994, no Republican has won election from a specific ward. In fact, in only three races since 1994 has a Republican garnered more than 20 percent of the vote—in 1996 (21%), 2002 (21%), and 2006 (28%). Occasionally, a third-party candidate will outpoll even his Republican counterpart.

Because Washington, D. C., is a majority-minority city, it is not surprising that many of the city council members have been minorities (mostly African American). Women, on the other hand, have not been numerically well represented on the council. Only five times has a female been elected as an at-large member (Carol Schwartz has been elected on two separate occasions), and Linda Cropp has been the only female council chairperson (1997–2006).4 Further, no more than eight different women have won election to ward seats.

The Council of the District of Columbia has a structured hierarchy. The chair has a vote on all standing committees and, in addition to being the chief executive officer of the legislative branch, can assume the office of mayor when it is vacant. If the chair is absent at a meeting, the chair pro tempore acts on his behalf. The chair pro tempore is nominated by the chair and approved by the council.

The council approves the yearly budget, determines land use, and approves all redistricting based on the decennial census. It is also responsible for approving major political appointments made by the mayor and can appoint members to special boards and commissions. As part of its general oversight responsibilities, the council appoints the D. C. auditor to help regulate government accounts and operation.

The part-time council meets in legislative session only one day a month, and much of its work is done at the committee level. Representation on the 11 standing and special committees is decided at the first meeting of a council session. When a bill is introduced, the chair assigns it to the proper committee, as designated by the council rules. The committee examines the need for and potential consequences of the bill, marks it up, and then recommends either its approval or disapproval. If the committee recommends approval, the chair places it on the agenda of the next legislative meeting, with the approval of the Committee of the Whole. At the meeting, council members debate the bill and offer up amendments. The bill then comes to a vote. If a majority votes for approval, it gets a second reading at the next meeting; if it fails, the bill dies.

Once a bill is passed, the U. S. Congress has between 30 and 60 legislative days to review it and either allow it or pass a resolution of disapproval. In an emergency, the council can pass an emergency act if two-thirds of the members vote that an emergency exists. The emergency act does not need to go through committee and is passed by a majority on the first reading. It takes effect when the mayor signs it, but it remains in effect for only 90 days. The council can override a mayoral veto of an emergency act with a two-thirds vote.5

Due to the structure of the legislative process, the council does have some power vis-à-vis the mayor, although not very much. Certain council members have considerable sway over the policy agenda. During the 17th Council Period (2007–2008), Marion Barry, the former mayor and Eighth Ward council member, sponsored or cosponsored 218 bills and proposed resolutions. Excluding council chair Vincent Gray, only Jim Graham, the Ward One council member, sponsored or co-sponsored more bills. Congressional review, apart from the budget, does not significantly impact the council: only 31 of the 755 bills (4.1%) passed in the 17th Council Period were to amend previous bills due to congressional review.

The Executive Branch

In the governmental hierarchy of Washington, D. C., the mayor sits atop the executive branch and is the only elected official within it. The overall bureaucratic structure in the District is relatively small, consisting of only eight major departments and offices, which then contain several other executive branch subdivisions. The chief financial officer and inspector general, who are appointed by the mayor, are the two other highly visible individuals in the executive branch. In addition to his budgetary responsibilities, the CFO is responsible for administering and enforcing the city's tax laws, as well as collecting its receipts, payments, and transactions. The inspector general plays an important role in holding the executive branch accountable by conducting audits and investigations of the District's public programs and departments.

The mayor's authority rests, in part, on broad appointment powers that enable the mayor to appoint individuals to head important agencies. These officials are expected to enhance and promote the mayor's agenda. The mayor also appoints many of the critical department and office heads, subject to the approval of the council. These include the attorney general, the inspector general, the heads of the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Office of the City Administrator, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, the head of the D. C. public schools, and the head of the department of education.

Because the mayor is the head of District government, he or she holds considerable sway over the District's policy agenda. Through news releases, news advisories, and public appearances, the mayor communicates his or her agenda on many policy initiatives. Though the mayor cannot formally introduce a bill at council meetings, the city council chair can do so at the mayor's request. The mayor also derives power in the policy process from the fact that the congressional review period of 30 to 60 legislative days means that many District bills take months to be enacted. To mitigate this time lag, the mayor often uses proposed resolutions (PRs), which are passed by one vote of the council and are effective immediately. During the 2007–2008 council session, over 1, 000 bills and PRs were introduced on behalf of Mayor Fenty, indicating his prominence in the agenda-setting process. The mayor also has the ability to veto standard bills and emergency declaration resolutions, as well as a line-item veto power.

The budget is viewed by the mayor as an opportunity to set the policy agenda, particularly in areas such as education and housing. As such, the mayor takes the lead in the overall budget process. The chief financial officer prepares the annual budget, and the mayor is then responsible for proposing it to the council, after entertaining requests from the various committees. The Committee of the Whole reviews the budget and revises it to represent the priorities of the entire council. Once the council passes it, the budget is passed back to the mayor, who then can sign it, veto it in its entirety, or veto specific items.

As of 2008, only five individuals, all Democrats, had been elected mayor of the District of Columbia. The most common path to the position of mayor has been via the Council of the District of Columbia: two of the five served on the council immediately prior to winning election as mayor. The first home-rule mayor, Walter Washington, had been the appointed mayor-commissioner from 1967 to 1974; Sharon Pratt Kelly was a local political activist and Democratic National Committee member prior to becoming mayor;and Anthony Williams was the city's chief financial officer under Marion Barry. Marion Barry had two different stints as mayor, each time serving on the council before running for head of the executive branch. Adrian Fenty represented Ward Four on the council for six years before successfully running for mayor in 2006.

The Judicial Branch

The District of Columbia court system, established in 1970 by Congress, comprises two courts, the D. C. Court of Appeals and the Superior Court of D. C. All judges and magistrates are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U. S. Senate. Funding for the courts comes from the federal government.

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia Court, consisting of a chief judge and 61 associate magistrates, is the trial court that has jurisdiction over all legal matters. To handle the caseload, it is separated into numerous divisions, including the civil, criminal, family court, domestic violence, probate, and small claims branches.

The highest court in the District of Columbia court system is the D. C. Court of Appeals, which is roughly the equivalent of a state supreme court. It consists of a chief judge and eight associate judges. Cases are heard by randomly selected three-judge panels, unless all nine judges request a hearing or rehearing. There are two elements to the court's jurisdiction. The first centers on reviewing decisions of the superior court. The D. C. Court of Appeals can also review any decision made by the city administration or city commissions and boards. Furthermore, it can address questions of law previously reviewed by federal and state appellate courts.

The court system is an administrative agency designed to support both courts. This court has numerous bureaucratic divisions, including Administrative Services, Budget and Finance, Capital Projects and Facilities Management, Education and Training, Court Reporting and Recording, General Counsel, Human Resources, Information Technology, and Research and Development.

Traditionally, the District of Columbia courts have been activist in nature, and they have handed down numerous opinions and initiatives affecting city policy and bureaucratic decisions. These opinions have concerned a wide range of issues, including medical marijuana, homosexual rights, Boy Scouts, and handguns. The decisions for such cases have not been consistently liberal or conservative, however. In Griffin v. United States (1982), for example, the D. C. Court of Appeals set forth the guidelines under which medical marijuana is legal, a decidedly “liberal” ruling. In Boy Scouts of America v. District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights (2002), on the other hand, the court took a conservative position in ruling that the Boy Scouts could exclude homosexuals from Scout leadership positions. In 2004 the D. C. Court of Appeals ruled in District of Columbia v. Beretta U. S. A. Corp., et al. that the District and its citizens could file suit against gun manufacturers and distributors for medical expenses incurred for the treatment of gunshot wounds. The D. C. Superior Court has gone beyond rulings to become directly involved in social policy. In 2007 it began a fatherhood initiative through the attorney general's office, with the aim of helping men recently released from prison become better fathers.

Intergovernmental Relations

The history of Washington, D. C., underscores the complicated relationship the city has had with the federal government, even after the District achieved home rule in 1974. Under the Home Rule Act, Congress maintains considerable oversight abilities over the District. Before any newly passed legislation becomes law, for example, Congress is able to review it. However, apart from the budget, this rarely happens (as mentioned previously, only 4.1 percent of the bills passed in the 17th Council Period were amended due to congressional review). The budgetary process is the best illustration of intergovernmental relations between the city and the federal government. Congress holds considerable sway over the annual D. C. budget, which is sent to the House and Senate appropriations committees after it is signed by the mayor. Each of these committees adopts its own version of the budget and reconciles any differences in a joint conference committee. Once Congress passes the city budget, the president can either sign or veto it.6

The dynamic between the District and the federal government is not the only aspect to intergovernmental relations. Within the District are 37 advisory neighborhood commissions, which represent the closest ties between the people and their government. Each neighborhood elects one representative to a commission. These commissions consider a variety of issues, such as street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, and traffic, and they present their recommendations and positions to the various District government agencies. They are also allowed to present their views to federal agencies.

Long-term Issues and Policy Trends

Washington, D. C., is in a unique policy position in that its needs are concentrated in one small land area. Because it is so geographically small, land use, in conjunction with housing and commercial development, is often at the forefront of the policy agenda.

After the 1990 census revealed a decrease in D. C. 's overall population, officials began examining ways to rejuvenate residential areas. In 2007, early in his term, Mayor Adrian Fenty made a pledge to create an additional 10, 000 housing units in the city, setting aside millions of dollars for this purpose. In 2008, the city began new housing development projects, particularly in the Eighth Ward, the District's poorest. These projects focus on affordable housing and reserve a certain proportion of units for buyers earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).7

Urban economic development has also consistently been an issue in the city. A major revitalization division of the D. C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, called reSTORE DC, focuses on business retention and small business development. The division actively encourages the use of U. S. Small Business Association (SBA) loans.

Another particularly salient housing and economic development project is centered on the Anacostia River, which feeds into the Potomac on the east side of the city. Implementation of the plan, known as the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative Framework Plan, began in 2007 with the long-term goal of over 6, 500 new housing units, 3 million square feet of office space, public parks and trails, and $10 billion in new investment over the ensuing two decades. Included in this development is the new Nationals Ballpark, home of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals franchise. 8

Education is also a significant issue in the District of Columbia. Due to the population decline during the previous five decades, in 2007 the District faced the problem of under-enrolled schools and managerial inefficiency. To combat the problem, the Fenty administration advocated a reorganization of the school system. In January 2008, the administration announced that over 20 schools faced either closing or consolidation. 9 Nevertheless, through Mayor Fenty's education initiative, spending for children and youth increased in 2008. Mayor Fenty also called for additional budget increases to raise the number of classrooms, programs, and children services.

Colin D. Swearingen
Bibliography and Further Reading
District of Columbia Resources

District of Columbia [official government Web site]. http://www. dc. gov.

Council of the District of Columbia. The Budget Process. 1997. http://www. dccouncil. washington. dc. us.

Council of the District of Columbia. History of Self-Government in the District of Columbia. http://www. dccouncil. washington. dc. us.

Council of the District of Columbia. How a Bill Becomes Law. 1997. http://www. dccouncil. washington. dc. us.

Council of the District of Columbia. “Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs Act of 2005. “ http://www. dccouncil. washington. dc. us/lims/ getleg1. asp?legno=B16-0235.

District of Columbia. “Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. “ http://anc. dc. gov/anc/site/default. asp.

District of Columbia. “Directory of Agencies and Services. “ http://dc. gov/agencies/index. asp.

District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics. http://www. dcboee. org.

District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics. “Historic Elected Officials in DC. “ http://www. dcboee. org/ candidate_info/historic_officials/history. asp.

District of Columbia Department of Small and Local Business Development. http://dslbd. dc. gov/olbd/site/default. asp.

District of Columbia Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “Anacostia Waterfront. “ http://dcbiz. dc. gov/dmped/cwp/view, a, 1365, q, 605699. asp.

District of Columbia Mayor's Office. “Fenty Announces New Affordable Housing Project in Ward 8. “ News Release, February 22, 2008. http://dc. gov/mayor/news/ release. asp?id=1217&mon=200802.

District of Columbia Mayor's Office. “Fenty, Kaine, O'Malley Pledge to Build a Greener, Sustainable Region. “ News Release, January 29, 2008. http://dc. gov/mayor/news/ release. asp?id=1211&mon=200801.

District of Columbia Mayor's Office. “Final Action on Reorganization and Rightsizing of District of Columbia Public Schools. “ D. C. Administrative Issuance System, January 31, 2008. http://edreform. dc. gov/edreform/ lib/edreform/schoolclosing/final_mayors_order. pdf.

District of Columbia Mayor's Office. “Mayor's Education Reform Center. “ http://edreform. dc. gov/ edreform/site/default. asp.

District of Columbia Office of Human Rights. http://ohr. dc. gov/ohr/site/default. asp.

Phillips, Joy, and Robert Beasley. Income and Poverty in the District of Columbia: 1990-2004. District of Columbia Office of Planning, 2005. http://planning. dc. gov/planning/lib/planning/sdc/ income_prov_dc_1990-04. pdf.


Kosmin et al. American Religious Identification Survey, 2001.


“Washington Post D. C. Mayoral Primary Poll,” August 2002.


Council of the District of Columbia, Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs Act of 2005.


District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, “Historic Elected Officials.”


Council of the District of Columbia, How a Bill Becomes Law.


Council of the District of Columbia, The Budget Process.


District of Columbia Mayor's Office, “Fenty Announces New Affordable Housing Project in Ward 8.”


DC Vote, “About DC Vote.”


DC Vote, “DC Voting Rights Act.”


District of Columbia Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, “Anacostia Waterfront.”


District of Columbia Mayor's Office, “Final Action on Reorganization and Rightsizing of District of Columbia Public Schools.”

© 2009 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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