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Ask Civics 101: Why Do District of Columbia Laws Need Congressional Approval?

Ask Civics 101
Sara Plourde

This week, a listener asks: why do District of Columbia laws need Congressional approval?

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The District of Columbia (D.C.) is a district and not a state, giving it a unique status in the United States. D.C. residents lack voting representation in Congress, they can’t participate in the constitutional amendment process, and they were only given the right to vote for the President and Vice President in 1961 with the ratification of the Twenty-Third Amendment. Additionally, the President appoints the District’s judges, and all laws passed by the District’s local government need approval by the U.S. Congress.

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As the federal capital, the Constitution gives Congress jurisdiction and ultimate control over the District. Article I, section 8 states that Congress has the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” In other words, Congress creates and controls a district that’ll be the seat of the U.S. government with land ceded from certain states.

D.C. residents have sought control over their own local affairs. In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which gave the local government certain powers that had been previously held by Congress. The Act includes the District Charter, which provides D.C.’s local government with an elected mayor and the 13-member Council of the District of Columbia. This Council passes legislation for the Mayor’s consideration.

But Congress still has ultimate authority over D.C. under the Home Rule Act. Congress controls D.C.’s budget, and it must review and approve all legislation passed by the District Council before becoming law. Once the Council passes and the Mayor approves a bill (or a veto is overridden by the Council), it’s sent to Congress for review before becoming a law. Congress has 30 days to review the bill (or 60 for some criminal bills). Congress can reject the bill with a joint resolution that must be approved by the President. If a resolution hasn’t been approved by the President once the 30-day period expires, then the bill becomes law.

With this, Congress ultimately has the power to reject D.C. laws as part of its oversight of the District. And what Congress gives, Congress can take away under the Constitution: the D.C. elected government was established by an act of Congress, and it can be abolished by an act of Congress.

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