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DC’s Political Status Examined:

Struggle for Equality in the District of Columbia

by Mark David Richards, PhD, Sociologist

December 2003

To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the Untied States of America:  We, the undersigned residents of Washington, D.C. and citizens of the United States, respectfully petition for representation in Congress as is duly granted to all citizens residing in the fifty States.” --Petition from Washington, DC Citizens to Congress, February 2, 2001-June 14, 2002

DC’s Status Question

Discussion of the political status of American citizens who live in Washington, District of Columbia, compared to Americans who live in the fifty states has been a hometown favorite for two centuries.  As an area that has been preoccupied with its identity since inception, few areas of the U.S. rival DC.

DC residents have agreed for many years that they want the same rights as citizens who live in states.  Although DC was part of the War for Independence and has performed all responsibilities of citizenship since the inception of the federal Union, Congress has never granted DC residents’ equal rights.  DC residents have watched—some with jealousy—as the federal government established Territories and admitted 37 states with full and equal rights.  DC is impatiently waiting her turn.  And though authors have described the situation for years, most Americans still have no idea about the details about DC’s “unique” status.  That is why DC citizens continue to agitate—from changing their license plate to read “Taxation without Representation” and to moving their 2004 presidential primary first to January 13—before Iowa and New Hampshire.  DC citizens know that without protest and controversy, their quest for equality will not occur.

DC’s indeterminate political status and lack of political equality is and has been “the elephant in the room” that is admired, abhorred, and sometimes ignored altogether.  Equal rights are a DC dream, some would say a delusion, others impossibility, but the historical record shows that it has been a very long-term goal.

DC’s Struggle for Equality Has Been An Intergenerational Effort

DC’s quest to be treated equal to citizens who live in states has been a two-century intergenerational project. The First Federal Congress passed The Residence Act in July 1790 to give President George Washington authority to choose an area on the Potomac River between the mouths of the Anacostia and Conococheague for the seat of government.  Kenneth Bowling’s seminal work, The Creation of Washington, D.C., offers the details.  Residents of the area chosen anticipated receiving good benefits by aligning themselves and binding their heirs with the federal government.

The architects of the federal system granted Congress the right of exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever over its seat of government in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the 1787 U.S. Constitution. The “District Clause” does not state that DC residents should not have equal rights.

Nevertheless, thanks to the “District Clause,” Congress is not subject to the same Constitutional limitations in DC that restrict its power in states.  Congress can modify all local laws and budgetary priorities without the consent of the governed.  owDC residents have never had voting representatives in the Senate or in the House of Representatives.  The President appoints their local judges and public prosecutor.  And although Congress has delegated power to a locally elected mayor and thirteen-member City Council since 1973, Congress has not granted DC judicial, legislative, or budgetary autonomy.  DC has a “limited Home Rule” government.

In late 1800, Augustus Brevoort Woodward submitted “Enquiries into the Necessity or Expediency of Assuming Exclusive Legislation over The District of Columbia” to Congress. He warned of a situation that today sounds prophetic:

“The effect of an assumption then, is to reduce us to that political situation, which Americans deprecate; we are to be governed by laws, in the making of which, we have no participation; we have no share in the state governments, of which we have no reason to complain, for we are separated from them; but we have no share in electing the members of congress, who are exclusively to legislate for us.  We are reduced to the mortifying situation, of being subject to laws, made, or to be made, by we know not whom; by agents, not of our choice, in no degree responsible to us, who from their situation, and the circumstance of having other constituents to serve, are not likely to be very tender of our rights, or very much alive to our interests.  We resort in vain to the constitution, for the means of relief; from that instrument, we cannot hope to have our situation ameliorated.”

Certainly, it is difficult to speak of “DC residents” as one group, because not all individuals have been treated equally over time.  After slavery was abolished, African American men won the legal right to vote in DC in January 1867, before the passage of the 15th Amendment (March 1870) and against the wishes of many white DC residents.  Not until 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed did women gain the right to vote.  The struggle for equality for blacks and women have occurred simultaneously with the struggle to expand DC’s rights.  Yet residents of the nation’s capital remain disenfranchised—simply because they live in Washington, DC!

DC’s peculiar political status is a unique cultural element of living in DC that has shaped residents’ character.  In successive waves, one generation has picked up the theme of equal rights and passed it to the next.

Though DC citizens have rarely demanded full freedom or been unified around a preferred remedy, their actions have been consistent and cautious.  Most often, DC residents accepted the status quo to avoid jeopardizing their status as host of the national capital, and sought minor rather than fundamental changes in their relationship with the federal government.  The political leadership has mainly sought what they thought they could convince Congress to accept—compromise solutions.  Constance McLaughlin Green, in Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950, documented the many “half loaf” arrangements in DC’s history.

Even so, residents have consistently expressed the view that they do not think they should have fewer rights than other American citizens, just because they were born in or made DC their permanent home.  DC residents have asked Congress for national representation and greater local autonomy.  They have proposed a variety of remedies, including retrocession (reversing the cession of land made by Maryland), becoming the state of New Columbia, or passing a Constitutional amendment.  Most recently, they have been asking Congress to pass simple legislation granting DC voting rights.

Civic and citizen activists have dramatized their opinions for twenty decades in front of a constantly changing Congress and Presidency.  Their methods and arguments have been consistent over time.  They have sent Memorials and petitions to Congress, written articles, drew political cartoons, carried banners, dressed up as slaves, threw “Tea Parties,” marched in parades, protested, and yelled out in Congress—all in hope that Congress would solve the paradox of being disenfranchised in the capital of the United States.  More often than not, Congressional representatives pay lip service to the injustice but promptly dismiss DC’s demands as unrealistic.  The more things change, the more they stay the same…

DC residents also asked the Courts for relief numerous times, most recently in two different cases—Adams v. Bush (see http://dccitizensfordemocracy.org/) and Alexander v. Daley.  The U.S. District Court for DC combined the cases and wrote:

“[M]any courts have found a contradiction between the democratic ideals upon which this country was founded and the exclusion of District residents from congressional representation. … Like our predecessors, we are not blind to the inequity of the situation plaintiffs seek to change. But longstanding judicial precedent, as well as the Constitution's text and history, persuade us that this court lacks authority to grant plaintiffs the relief they seek. If they are to obtain it, they must plead their cause in other venues.”

DC citizens have also turned to International Courts. Timothy Cooper of Democracy First and the International Human Rights Law Group made statements before the UN Commission on Human Rights and other international groups and movement is expected on this front in the near future.  The U.S. appears hypocritical in international forums, as it is the only democratic nation in the world which denies its capital district residents representation in the national legislature—in violation of human rights agreements.

Public opinion polls that I directed in 1997 and 1999 found that public support for equal DC voting rights in the Senate and the House of Representatives crosses political party.

Percent Saying DC Citizens Should Have Equal Voting Rights

in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives

Question:  “Now a question about the political status of the more than half million citizens who live in Washington, DC.  Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has exclusive legislative authority over the District government.  Since 1964, DC citizens have had the right to vote in presidential elections.  Since 1974 they have elected a limited home rule government funded 80% by local taxes.  Unlike citizens in the 50 states, they do not have voting representation in Congress, neither in the House nor the Senate.  In your opinion, should DC citizens have equal voting rights in the House and the Senate, or not?”

U.S. Adults 72%

College graduate Voters 69%

Source:  Mark Richards Poll.  Nationally representative sample of 1,000 US adults 18 years+ interviewed October 22-25, 1999.  Margin-of-error is +/- 3%.  Nationally representative sample of 500 college grads registered to vote interviewed Nov. 12-21, 1999.  Margin of error is +/- 4.5%.

Support for Equal Rights for DC Citizens By Political Party Identification

(College Graduates Registered to Vote)

Democrat 81%

Independent 71%

Republican 61%

Source:  Mark Richards Poll. Nationally representative sample of 500 college grads who are registered to vote interviewed Nov. 12-21, 1999.  Margin of error is +/- 4.5%.

Efforts Related to Expanding Local Self-Government

Constitutional author James Madison, when arguing in favor of the District Clause in Federalist No. 43, said residents would “of course” be allowed a local legislature:

“[T]he inhabitants will find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties to the cession; as they will have their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them, as a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them.”

However, in 1970, the court stated in Breakefield v. District of Columbia that an elected legislature is not constitutionally required. Congress has both contracted and expanded DC’s political rights since the 131 federal officials arrived in Washington City in 1800 and assumed exclusive power in 1801.  There were 14,093 residents in the combined jurisdictions of the District of Columbia in 1800. Overall, Congress has “kept DC on a tight leash.”

DC has had limited local self-government for half of its history: from the early years until 1873, and from 1973 to present.  In the early years, Washington City, Georgetown, Washington County, Alexandria City, and Alexandria (now Arlington) County were separate jurisdictions with separate local governments. 

Steven J. Diner, in Democracy, Federalism and the Governance of the Nation’s Capital: 1790-1974, characterized the years between 1800 and the Civil War as ones of “benign neglect” in which local citizens “exercised considerable self-government.”  Diner found that “Congress devoted only limited attention to the District and provided funds for public needs stingily and haphazardly.”

During the period of “benign neglect,” Washington City elites advocated for a Territorial government.  Petitions for a Territorial government were frequently combined with requests for Congressional representation.  For the purposes of this article, I have separated the two issues.

In Dec. 1818, President Monroe supported a Territorial government. But DC citizens were divided.  The editor of the City of Washington Gazette (Jan. 6 and April 21, 1820) warned against “abdicating the patronage of congress” because “we may immeasureably [sic] sink into insignificance.”

Georgetown and Alexandria City were not interested in a Territorial government.  Wilhelmus Bogart Bryant pointed out that it was not just “passive indifference” that resulted in local disagreement over a remedy, but that the “three towns were jealous and suspicious, rivals in the struggle for commerce and trade and in consequence antagonistic in their relations.”

In 1820, the Supreme Court, in Loughborough v. Blake, considered this question:  Has Congress a right to impose a direct tax on the District of Columbia?  Chief Justice Marshall explained that the right to tax “extends to all places over which the government extends. … Representation is not the foundation of taxation.”  The court viewed DC as having “voluntarily relinquished the right of representation, and has adopted the whole body of Congress for its legitimate government.”

In Washington City, a Committee was appointed in October 1822 and wrote a Memorial to Congress to say that residents were not “expressing a desire to withdraw from the paternal rule of the Congress,” but that “they can discover but two modes in which the desired relief can be afforded, either by the establishment of a territorial government, suited to their present condition and population, and restoring them, in every part of the nation to the equal rights enjoyed by the citizens of the other portions of the United States, or by a retrocession to the states of Virginia and Maryland, of the respective parts of the District which were originally ceded by those states to form it.”

In 1824, citizens sent another Memorial to Congress in which they argued that the exclusive legislation clause “could not have been intended to confer a power to destroy that liberty which the constitution was framed to protect.” They wrote,

“[A] construction has been given to this constitution, by the Supreme Court of the United States, and by the courts of many, if not all, the States, which places the inhabitants of the District of Columbia, in some of the most important particulars, in a state of alienage [sic] and vassalage, as to the rest of the nation: while, for all the purposes of revenue and military service, they are subject, though unrepresented in Congress, or in any state Legislature, to every tax, either direct or indirect, and to every other burthen, which that body can impose on their constituents.  The undersigned need not call to your recollection, that the imposition of taxes by the British Parliament, on these States, then British colonies, in which they were not represented, was the cause of their separation from the parent country—it being held by the founders of our Republic, that Taxation and Representation should ever accompany each other: this principle forming the fundamental and only sure basis of free government.”

Apparently, it was as difficult to gain the attention of Congress then as now.  On Dec. 28, 1825 a Committee sent another beautifully scripted Memorial to Congress.  Their efforts during the last two sessions of Congress, they wrote, had “proved abortive; though a committee of the House of Representatives reported a bill in favor of the measure.”

The Memorialists’ noted that the federal government had given the newly acquired territories “one thirty-sixth part of the soil in perpetuity for the maintenance of education.”  They wrote, “Mr. Madison has said – ‘that a municipal Legislature derived from their own suffrages will, of course, be allowed them.  This committee will conclude with observing that the Constitution guarantees to every State ‘a republican form of government—‘ does not this imply that Congress ought to give to every territory as far as may be practicable a similar form of Government?”

Although DC’s municipal charter was modified periodically, Memorials such as this were filed away and have become part of the public record.  At last, in 1871 the political systems of Georgetown and Washington City were consolidated into one so-called “Territorial government.”  Rather than elected mayors, DC would have a presidentially appointed Governor and Upper House and an elected House of Delegates.  But it only lasted three years, after which Congress abolished all elected offices and established a government by three Presidentially appointed commissioners.  Congress agreed to pay fifty percent of municipal expenses.

For a couple of decades, residents didn’t seem too concerned about their lack of local and national voting rights.  By 1890, as Congress reduced its contribution for municipal expenses, local elites started to raise questions about inequity in funding and taxation, and by 1910 there were active efforts to win some form of local self-government.  Constance McLaughlin Green reported that, that year, the District Suffrage League polled 10,816 ballots favoring local suffrage to 944 against.

President Taft, in a message to Congress in Dec. 1912, expressed his opposition:  “The truth is this is a city government by a popular body, to wit, the Congress of the United States, selected from the people of the United States who own Washington.  The people who come here to live do so with the knowledge of the origin of the city and the restriction, and therefore voluntarily give up the privilege of living in a city governed by popular vote.”

Over the next decades, citizens worked toward an elected school board and national voting rights, to have their own flag, to make DC history part of the curriculum, and to have a complete Code of Laws.  They were successful in establishing a complete a Code of Laws for DC (including the old British and Maryland statutes still in force) in 1929. The School Board made local history a part of the curriculum for junior high school students in 1930, and a committee of social studies teachers prepared material that was later published as “Washington, Yesterday and Today.”  And residents succeeded in getting a DC flag in 1938.

The issue of government inefficiency during the 1930s led to questions in the Roosevelt administration about how to reorganize the DC government.  In April 1938, a Citizens’ Conference of 271 local organizations conducted a plebiscite and found majority supported the vote for their own city government and national voting rights.

In 1946, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act, recommending “Congress divest itself of the duty of governing the District of Columbia and provide for a referendum on adoption of self-government by city charter.” A bi-racial Washington Home Rule Committee was formed the next year. Despite opposition to re-establishing some form of local self-government among southern segregations in Congress and certain local elites who feared DC would lose financial support from the federal government, citizens worked for Home Rule until it was finally achieved in 1973.

After World War II, the new field of survey research, using random sampling techniques, made quantitative assessments of public opinion more readily available.  In 1949, George Gallup surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults and found 65% thought “the people of Washington should elect their own city officials” (20% said the President should continue to appoint DC’s leaders).  In 1952, President Harry Truman said he strongly supported self-government for DC, and the Senate passed repeated Home Rule bills that were blocked by the southern segregationists in committee.

In 1965, Lou Harris interviewed a representative sample of 1,250 U.S. adults and found 66% in favor of Congress giving DC the right to elect its own city government.  Those who favored said, "every city should determine their own destiny," and "every community has the right to self-government."  Most of those who opposed home rule (10 percent) said, "there are too many Negroes, they would take over."

Many civil rights leaders moved to D.C. to fight for Home Rule.  In 1965, Southern National Coordination Committee (SNCC) field secretary, Marion Barry, moved to D.C. to help organize citizens.  He established the Free D.C. Movement, which encouraged businesses who supported home rule to display a “Free D.C.” sign in their window.  If they did not, citizens could choose to boycott their business.

In 1966, Lou Harris surveyed 1,500 metropolitan Washington residents for The Washington Post.  Harris found 69% of DC residents supported home rule-but only 45% of Caucasians.  Support by African-Americans in the Washington region was strong-84%.  Support in the region was 52% (51% of residents of Montgomery, 34% Prince George's, 39% Arlington, and 37% of Fairfax Counties).  Harris reported that respondents who opposed home rule feared higher taxes, corruption, less federal aid, and African-American control of the Capital.  Those who supported home rule said Washington would be better governed by people who know and live with its problems, everyone should have a voice in their own government, lack of local government in the Nation's Capital was tarnishing America's image oversees, and home rule would result in better housing, better schools, and higher morale among District residents.

President Johnson is a DC hero.  He submitted a reorganization plan to Congress in 1967 abolishing the Board of Commissioners and putting a single executive head in charge with a deputy commissioner and nine-member City Council—it became effective in August.  Congress approved a home rule bill and President Richard M. Nixon signed it on Christmas day 1973.  He also established a “state level” court system (since 1801 it had been combined with federal).

DC was granted limited home rule by Congress in December 1973.  Walter Washington was elected DC’s first Mayor of the 20th century.  Julius W. Hobson, Sr. of the Statehood Party called the “half-loaf” Home Rule charter “Home Fool.”

Altogether, DC’s various jurisdictions have had 70 mayors.  In addition, they have had two Presidentially-appointed Governors and 75 Presidentially appointed Commissioners, of which 22 presided over the Board of Commissioners.

Number of Elected Mayors in District of Columbia Cities

Alexandria Georgetown Washington City

1790-1846 27 15 --

1802-1840 -- -- 12

1847-1870            Part of Virginia 4 8

1871-1974            Part of Virginia       Merged into Wash., DC       0

1975-2000            Part of Virginia        Merged into Wash., DC      4


TOTAL 27 19 24

The current Home Rule government is indeed limited— DC officials do not have legislative, judicial, or budgetary autonomy.  They are subject to Congressional oversight, as shown in the following diagram:

DC’s Unelected “State Legislature,” the DC Government,

and DC Citizens in 2002

The Congress-535 Members (D.C. has no voting representation in Congress. The U.S. is the only democratic nation that excludes citizens of the capital city.)

The President (D.C. votes for President, but because D.C. has no votes in Congress, it cannot vote on impeachment.)

The Senate-100 Members (D.C. has no representation in the Senate.)

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee-17 Members & Subcommittee on Oversight of government management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia-10 Members

Senate Committee on Appropriations-29 Members and Subcommittee on the District of Columbia-7 Members

The House of Representatives-435 Members (D.C. has a non-voting Delegate in the House.)

House Committee on government Reform-44 members and Subcommittee on the District of Columbia-7 Members (D.C.'s non-voting Delegate is on this subcommittee.)

House Commmittee on Appropriations-65 Members and Subcommittee on the District of Columbia-9 Members

The Mayor of D.C. (Elected by D.C. Citizens) and The Council of D.C. (13 Members elected by D.C. citizens)

575,000 Permanent Residents of D.C. without full democracy, and with no vote in Congress!

Whether this is what James Madison and Constitutional authors had in mind is a topic for speculation.  But today, most DC elected officials and residents believe their government should have more authority that it does.  A Washington Post poll of DC residents in February 2000 asked who had the most power in DC government these days-56% said Congress.  When asked who should have the most power, 80% said either the mayor or Council, or both.

Flirting with Freedom

DC residents have flirted with freedom from Congress for many years and in many ways.  Because one Congress is not bound by the legislation of a previous Congress, legislative changes must be considered temporary.  So, residents have sought more fundamental and lasting changes.  They have sought to return to the states from which DC was ceded (Virginia and Maryland), to pass various Constitutional amendments to specify their rights, and to become the independent state of New Columbia.  With retrocession and statehood, DC would be part of a state or become a state and the relationship with the federal government would fundamentally change.  With an amendment, the current special relationship between the nation and DC would be preserved but rights would be defined in the Constitution.

Efforts to Retrocede

Retrocession is reversing the cession of land made by the states when DC was formed.  Virginia and Maryland ceded the original area for DC, but the Virginia portion was “restored” to Virginia in 1846.

Beginning in 1801 and until the Civil War there was discussion about retroceding—reuniting—the areas outside of Washington City back to their original states.  Georgetown and Alexandria, Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan wrote, “felt their interests, neglected and ignored by congress, would be served by getting entirely outside of the range of its exclusive legislation.  A return to the mother states was advocated, and in both towns a vote was taken, and while retrocession was defeated, it was only on the ground that it was not feasible at that time.”

Washington City residents became nervous by the discussion of retrocession.  John Clagett Proctor explained that the retrocession movement created uncertainty and brought “insecurity of tenure” to the real estate market in Washington City as potential buyers considered whether the seat of government could be moved.

In the early 1840s, Alexandrians gained won the support of the Virginia General Assembly to retrocede.  In 1846, during the war that U.S. declared on Mexico, President James K. Polk signed a bill passed by the House and Senate to retrocede the Virginia portion of DC to that state because the land wasn’t needed for the seat of government.  Congress required a referendum be held in Alexandria city.  Citizens of that area approved the measure.  Citizens of Alexandria County petitioned against retrocession and accused Alexandria City of “concocting” the measure in a secret meeting in which the country residents were not consulted. Their pleas were ignored.  Washington City and County and Georgetown were not allowed to vote on the measure.

Discussion about retroceding Georgetown and Washington County to Maryland continued.  In the end, these efforts were not successful and were terminated with the outbreak of the Civil War.  Retrocession efforts were replaced by talk of retrieving the retroceded portion and restoring George Washington’s original “10-mile square.”

In 1875, an effort was made by an Alexandria County citizen to obtain a decision from the Supreme Court about the legality of the 1846 retrocession, but failed.  The matter was put on back burner.  In 1896, as images of a proud National Capital were revived, Senator McMillan introduced and the Senate adopted a resolution of inquiry asking the Attorney General for an opinion about the legality of retrocession.

In 1902, a joint resolution introduced in both houses of Congress directed the Attorney General to bring suit to determine the constitutionality.  It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which responded that, in its opinion, the case was a political, not a judicial question.  “If it is desirable that Alexandria become a part of the District of Columbia again, the only way to accomplish it will be to open negotiation with Virginia and get her consent.” Virginia Representatives said they would “vigorously oppose” any such effort.

In the Home Rule bill passed in 1973, Congress identified and created a “federal enclave” within DC, comprising mainly of the National Mall, called the National Capital Service Area (NCSA).  Efforts to retrocede the portions of DC outside of the NCSA have been discussed periodically, with little interest expressed in Maryland, in DC, or by Congress.  The Committee for the Capital City supports “reunion” with Maryland.

George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs conducted a representative survey of 459 DC voters in April 2000 and found 68% opposed the proposal that “the District become part of Maryland for the purpose of Congressional elections.”

Nationally representative surveys of 1,000 U.S. adults that I directed in 1999 found 59% of those who supported equal voting rights for DC in the Senate and the House of Representatives would support DC residents if they wanted to merge with the state of Maryland.

Constitutional Amendments

The idea of passing an amendment to give District citizens voting rights in Congress was explained by Constitutional authors.  Alexander Hamilton had argued in Federalist No. 85 that it was urgent to establish a central government, that perfection was not possible, but that time would identify areas of the Constitution that could be improved and it could be amended.  To pass a Constitutional amendment requires two thirds of both houses of Congress and it must be approved by three-fourths of the States (38 of 50).  The Constitution has been amended only 17 times (counting the “Bill of Rights” amendments as one instance).

Hamilton realized there would be problems ahead for DC.  At the New York ratifying convention, Hamilton proposed that the Constitution be amended to provide “When the Number of Persons in the District or Territory to be laid out for the Seat of Government of the United States… amounts to ___ [number not specified] … Provision shall be made by Congress for having District representation in that Body,” but his suggestion was not taken.

There have been many amendment proposals, beginning with one suggested by DC’s Augustus Brevoort Woodward in 1800, another by Mayland’s John Dennis on the floor of Congress in 1801. In the early years, amendment proposals gained more support in Washington City than in other areas of DC because Washington City residents were concerned about preserving their status as “seat of government.”  Amendment proposals have been written in a variety of ways, but most have not tried to challenge Congress’s exclusive legislative authority over all of DC.  They have all sought to define expanded rights under law.

Memorialists in 1824 urged Congress to grant them equal rights in every state, a territorial government, and representation in the House of Representatives until their population amounted to the smallest state, at which time they wanted a representative in both houses of Congress. In 1841, the General Assembly of Delaware sent resolutions to Congress opposing retrocession, but supporting representation for DC in Congress:

“Resolved, That this Legislature are unwilling to believe, with the citizens of Washington and Georgetown, that their only chance for good government and prosperity rests in a retrocession of the territory ceded to the United States by the State of Maryland; but confidently hope the next, if not the present, Congress will grant them ample redress of all their grievances.  Resolved, That the people of the District of Columbia ought to be represented in the Congress of the United States, and that measure should be taken, as soon as conveniently may be, to bring about such just and desirable end.”

Amendment proposals made little progress, but DC elites put more effort into promoting an amendment beginning in 1888, when Theodore Noyes, the son of the editor of the Evening Star, published a series on Congressional neglect of DC and argued for a Constitutional amendment to give DC citizens’ representation to Congress and members in the presidential Electoral College. Support for a voting rights amendment in DC grew, but local elites were leery of elected self-government.  Some in Congress derided the amendment as an effort at “virtual statehood.”

In 1916, when DC paid off the money and interest it owed the federal government for debt created by the Territorial government, white District residents formed the Citizens’ Joint Committee on National Representation for the District of Columbia to advocate for the right to vote in the Senate, House, and Electoral College, with the same rights before the Federal Courts as enjoyed by the residents of the States. The issue was discussed in Congress in 1917, but took low priority as the U.S. entered World War I.

The Committee continued to press the issue, arguing that the amendment would not remove power from Congress, but would grant Congress an additional power.  They said the amendment did not propose the admission of DC into the Union as a sovereign State, and did not propose ending the “10 miles square” provision.  The Committee tried various methods to raise awareness.  In the November 1928 election, it ran an ad in The Evening Star saying election day was Washington’s “Day of Humiliation,” and printed a copy of the Constitutional amendment pending before Congress “to admit the residents of the District of Columbia to the status of citizens of a State for the purpose of representation in Congress and the Electoral College.”

Not everyone in DC supported the proposal.  Home Rule supporters were suspicious that the push for an amendment was a tactic to detract from Home Rule efforts.  And The Ten Miles Square Club and the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association opposed the proposal on the grounds that “The weakest point in the system of government in this country is generally admitted to be in the rule of large cities.” The Club warned, “This proposed amendment is the most dangerous and revolutionary amendment ever offered …  it might… ultimately destroy the Nation… the precedent of a City-State once established would change our historical concept of what may constitute a State.”

In April 1938, a Citizens’ Conference of 271 local organizations financed a plebiscite with two questions—“[D]o you want to vote for President and for members of Congress from the District of Columbia?, and Do you want to vote for officials of your own city government in the District? The District Suffrage League set up voting places in 38 public schools, and on April 30, most of the 95,538 who voted supported both measures.

The time for a DC amendment arrived during the nation’s Civil Rights upheavals.  In 1959, a Constitutional amendment to abolish poll taxes was proposed in Congress.  Evening Star editor Benjamin McKelway suggested adding a DC voting rights clause to that amendment. As it turned out, to appease the Civil Rights movement, Congress settled on a Presidential voting rights bill for DC with the number of electors determined by the least populated state rather than determined by population size.  It dropped the anti-poll tax amendment.

The Report of the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives (June 9, 1960), which held hearings on the issue, explained that the amendment “would not make the District of Columbia a State.  It would not give the District of Columbia any other attributes of a State or change the constitutional powers of the Congress to legislate with respect to the District of Columbia and to prescribe its form of government. In discussed retrocession and statehood and argued that the amendment would have “minimum impact,” and would, in fact, “perpetuate recognition of the unique status of the District as the seat of Federal Government under the exclusive legislative control of Congress.” The House approved the 23rd Amendment on June 15, the Senate on June 16.

The Evening Star had editorialized that it regretted that the Amendment left the question of voting representation in Congress untouched, but when the amendment passed it ran an article (June 17, 1960) titled "Hallelujah!," opening with: "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; But 'tis enough; 'twill serve." (From Mercutio’s death speech in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1, which is followed a couple of sentences later by “A plague o’ both your houses!”)   DC residents led the effort to convince state legislatures to pass the measure.  It was ratified by 39 states on March 29, 1961—faster than any amendment except the 12th (1804), and two days less than it took to repeal prohibition.

Presidential Voting Rights for DC Passed in 1961

Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Section 1.  The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2.  Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

DC, as well as the Territories, was granted the right to a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives in The District of Columbia Election Act of 1970.  The League of Women Voters organized a demonstration for DC home rule that year. 

In 1976, as discussion of a constitutional amendment advanced, Councilman Julius W. Hobson, Sr. of the Statehood Party argued (The Washington Star, Dec. 6, 1976) against such because “such an amendment would then have to be repealed to ever permit DC residents to enjoy the full rights and responsibilities of statehood.”

In 1978 Congress approved the 27th Amendment, if ratified by 38 states within 7 years, to grant DC two Senators, voting rights in the House  and in presidential elections commensurate with population, and the right to participate in the ratification of Constitutional amendments.

George F. Will, who opposed the amendment, highlighted the fact that because the amendment didn’t create a republican form of self-government in DC, Congress would turn to its “own agent” for amendment approvals:

“As regards the amending process, note that under the law granting the District ‘Home Rule,’ the city council remains an agent of Congress, subject to Congress’s veto.  That is, the law is consistent with the Constitution’s provision that Congress shall ‘exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever’ over the District. But what this means is that were the city council to function as the equivalent of a state legislature in the amendment process, Congress would submit amendments for the approval of its own agent.”

Professor Judith Best called the amendment “nominal statehood.” She said there was “near unanimity” in Congress on the principle of national representation for DC, but said “[t]he disagreement arose over the nature of the remedy with a division into two camps: one camp for nominal statehood and the other for retrocession.  Although nominal statehood won the day in Congress, it has floundered with states.”

Large majorities in DC said they supported the amendment.  The DC Coalition for Self-Determination published results of a survey of 307 District residents in Feb. 1984, conducted by the Community Connections Corporation, showing 77% of DC residents supported “an amendment to the Constitution that would give the District of Columbia voting rights in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.”

The amendment effort was troubled.  The Statehood Party opposed it and there was infighting among proponents about how to best convince legislatures to support the measure.  The American Conservative Union and other groups raised $300,000 from 23,000 conservative donors to defeat the amendment. On Aug. 22, 1985, when time ran out, DC was 22 states short of ratification.  Sixteen states approved:  Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana, Hawaii and Delaware.

Several amendment proposals have surfaced in recent years.  In 1995, Charles Wesley Harris proposed an amendment to allow the nation’s capital to remain a district but to be treated as a de facto state, set forth in legal terms covering both local autonomy and national representation. In 1997, Timothy Cooper proposed a DC Equal Rights Amendment to treat DC citizens as citizens of a state for all constitutional intents and purposes.” In 2002, Harris, Cooper, and I described an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment and drafted language for discussion purposes (See sidebar).

In 2000, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) proposed an amendment to grant DC voting rights in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. In 2001, Jamin Raskin proposed an amendment to guarantee all U.S. citizens the right to vote, including DC citizens.

Nationally representative surveys of 1,000 U.S. adults that I directed in 1999 found 82% of those who supported equal voting rights for DC in the Senate and the House of Representatives would support DC residents if they wanted to pass an Equal Constitutional Rights Amendment.  Support for an amendment crossed political party.





Amendment XXIX

Section 1. All US citizens residing in the non-federal areas of the District of Columbia shall be treated as residents of a state for all constitutional intents and purposes, and shall enjoy those same rights, powers and privileges, including:

—Equal representation in the House of Representatives under Article 1.

—Equal representation in the US Senate under the 17th amendment.

—The right to a republican form of government under Article 4.

—The right to all powers and privileges under the 9th and 10th amendments.

—Equal protection under the 14th amendment..

Section 2. Congress shall limit its power to exercise its “exclusive legislation” over the District of Columbia under Article 1, Section 8, paragraph 17 of the constitution to the following geographical areas, except in the case of a compelling national interest:

—All federal buildings and properties, and the National Park Service areas.

—All foreign embassies and missions.

Section 3. The Federal Height Act of 1910 shall remain under the exclusive legislative authority of Congress.

Section 4. All other federal laws shall apply to the District of Columbia, as if it was a state.

Section 5. General services may be provided to the federal government by the government of the District of Columbia on an as needed basis on such terms as are mutually satisfactory to the parties. The federal government shall have jurisdiction over and provide for the District of Columbia’s courts and correctional facilities until such time as the District determines otherwise.

Section 6. Nothing shall prevent the federal government from compensating the District of Columbia in the form of payment in lieu of taxes for revenues foregone as the seat of national government.

Section 7. The 23rd amendment shall be repealed concurrently with the passage of this amendment.

Section 8. Nothing in this amendment shall prohibit the District of Columbia from becoming a state in due course. At such time as the District becomes a state, this amendment shall become null and void. The Congress shall have the power to enforce these articles by appropriate legislation.

The idea that DC residents would eventually want statehood was recognized early. In 1805, James Holland (R-NC) argued in favor of retrocession because he believed if the Congress established a Territorial government in the District citizens there would eventually want statehood. During the Home Rule debates in Congress in 1959, some representatives expressed fear that if DC were granted Home Rule, it would want “statehood.” It wasn’t until March 1969 that the DC Statehood Committee was formed.Statehood has been a grassroots initiative, with little or muted support from DC’s elected officials.

In June 1970, Sam Smith, publisher of DC Gazette, made the case for DC statehood and described how DC could become New Columbia short of a Constitutional amendment.  To become a state, the following steps are required:

„  The people much hold a Constitutional Convention and draft a state Constitution, which must be approved by the people of the area and by Congress.

„  The people must request Congress to approve statehood;

„  The U.S. Congress must vote in favor of an act of admission by a simple majority.

That fall, the DC Statehood Party formed, and statehood activist Julius W. Hobson, Sr. won 12 percent of the vote for DC’s non-voting Delegate seat.  The Statehood Party was “far too radical for many people’s taste,” Smith wrote in Captive Capital.

By 1977, a survey of 1,126 residents of the DC metro region, directed by Associate Professor Robert Hitlin of American University, found 51 percent of District residents supported statehood, 28 percent opposed and 21 percent were not sure.

Councilman Julius W. Hobson, Sr. introduced a statehood bill to City Council in Nov. 1977, but only three Council members voted in favor—Marion Barry, David Clarke, and Julius Hobson.  The City Council held hearings in 1978.  Advocates of the Congressional bill that would give DC equal voting rights in Congress argued that there was a good chance the Voting Rights Amendment could be passed in 1978, and said statehood “would be used as a negative factor against us in the Senate, and we should not lose our charge.” (The Washington Post, June 29, 1978).  Statehood advocates opposed the Voting Rights Amendment.

In 1980, the Statehood Party put the statehood issue on the ballot.  Hilda Howland Mason, Chair of the DC Statehood Party and Council member, argued that the statehood would result in full self-government that could not be revoked by Congress.  Sixty percent voted in favor of the Statehood Initiative.

In 1981, forty-five delegates were elected to draft the Constitution of New Columbia.  Philip G. Schrag gives a detailed account of his perspective of the Constitutional Convention in “Behind the Scenes: The Politics of a Constitutional Convention” (1985).  Charles Cassell was elected president.  Participants included three Council members—Hilda Mason (Statehood Party), David Clarke (Democrat), and Rev. Jerry Moore (Republican), and School Board member Barbara Lett Simmons.  On Nov. 2, 1982, 53 percent of DC citizens approved the Constitution.

The mayor submitted to Congress a petition for admission of the state of New Columbia.  In the 98th Congress, DC’s non-voting delegate, Walter Fauntroy, introduced the DC statehood bill in the House and Senator Edward Kennedy introduced it in the Senate.

Each year, the DC Statehood bill was reintroduced in Congress, but it never made it to the floor until 1993.  In 1990, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly wanted to work for statehood. In 1990, local officials allowed the first Shadow Congressional Delegation (two shadow Senators and one Representative), established under the Statehood Initiative, to be elected to lobby Congress for statehood.  In 1991, The New York Times argued that the bill should be brought out of committee for a floor vote:

“Washingtonians deserve self-government no less than other Americans.  …The current arrangement is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy.  Washingtonians have suffered long under second-class citizenship.  …The real objections to statehood are political.  When Mr. Bush opposes statehood, he is opposing the creation of two additional Democratic Senators…” (October 6, 1991)

William Jefferson Clinton was the first president to endorse DC statehood.  In Jan. 1993, DC’s non-voting Delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, welcomed the new Democratic administration and Congress to Washington and reminded them of DC’s status issue.  That same month, The Washington Post endorsed statehood for the first time. 

In November 1993, the House debated H.R. 51, the New Columbia Admission Act.  The debate lasted two days and ended 63 votes short—153 for and 277 against, with four not voting.  The Washington Afro-American (Nov. 27, 1993) wrote, “If some 50 years ago, voters could convince their elected officials to outlaw such things as lynching and the poll tax, we know in today’s world we can turn around at least 63 of these Congresspersons.  That’s all we need – 218 – to gain freedom for the residents of the District of Columbia.”

In February 2000, a representative survey of 800 DC citizens conducted by The Washington Post, found support for statehood had risen to the highest levels they had ever measured—58 percent favorable, 38 percent opposed, six percent were not sure—after years of citywide crisis and division.

Favorability to DC Statehood Among DC Residents

“Do you favor or oppose the District of Columbia becoming a separate state?”


Year 1989 1992 1993 1995 1996 1997 1998 2000
% Favor 56 57 51 48 48 46 52 58
% Oppose 30 20 41 45 39 47 38 36


Source: The Washington Post, representative surveys of ____ DC adults.

Nationally representative surveys of 1,000 U.S. adults that I directed in 1999 found 57% of those who supported equal voting rights for DC in the Senate and the House of Representatives would support DC residents if they sought statehood.

Concluding Observations

DC political equality is an intergenerational issue that is constrained by Congressional power granted by the Constitution.  In a grand act of cognitive dissonance, the ideal of political equality has been denied to DC citizens and brushed aside by political elites as though the matter is trivial.  Throughout history, DC residents have solicited and found support for expanding self-government from Presidents and members of Congress, and have made some progress.  President Lyndon Johnson is a prime example of an effective hometown hero.  But DC citizens have not had enough influence to win political equality.  DC NBC-4 news reporter Tom Sherwood observed that locally, “The people who could change the situation do not need to.”

Some members of Congress have labeled, stigmatized, and blocked DC’s efforts.  For example, in DC’s municipal budget, over 95 percent of which is generated locally, Congress routinely adds an amendment (“rider”) forbidding DC from spending any local funds to lobby in support of DC statehood or DC voting representation in Congress.

In 1930, Historian John Clagette Proctor wrote in Washington Past and Present: A History, “The denial of the right of franchise to the people of the federal area was and is an insidious weakening condition—discouraging, devitalizing, demoralizing, and doubtless, from the first, had a deadening effect upon all local movements.  Enthusiasm and initiative are rarely strong in a subject people.”

But Proctor might be pleased to know that DC citizens have retained faith in their nation’s stated ideals and have continued to fight for equality in the nation’s capital.  DC residents have taken inspiration from the General after which DC is named, have built on the knowledge conveyed by Bryan, Proctor, Green, and other scholars, and have passed the torch for DC freedom and equality from one generation to the next—against the odds.

To achieve their goals, DC needs the support of citizens living in states, because ultimately DC’s fate lies in its hands.  Nationally representative surveys that I directed show that 72% of adults think DC residents should have equal voting rights.  Support crossed political party.  But, over half (55%) of college graduate voters were not aware that DC citizens do not have equal constitutional rights, including the right to vote in the Senate and the House of Representatives—46% said DC citizens already have equal rights, and 9% were not sure.  Seventy percent of 21 to 34 year olds were not aware.

Today, many DC citizens continue to work to educate and inform other Americans about the issue.  DC’s license plate reads, “Taxation without Representation.”  DC residents have taken their case to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.  And in 2003, they moved their Presidential primary from May to January 13—from nearly last to first—as a way to tell the nation that they are tired of riding at the back of the democracy bus.

Though it is unclear how residents will obtain their long-term goal, they continue talking about and advocating for the same rights as citizens living in states.  Whether the nation is listening or interested remains a question.

Percent Not Aware that DC Citizens

Do Not Have Equal Constitutional Rights

“As far as you know, do citizens who live in Washington, DC, have the same constitutional rights as other U.S. citizens, including equal voting rights in Congress?”

College Graduate Registered Voters


Total 55%
Women 66%
Men 43%
21-34 70%
35-49 60%
50+ 47%
Gradaute 41%
Bachelor 58%
Over $60K 46%
Under $60K 66%
Republican 56%
Independent 51%
Democrat 61%


Source:  Richards Poll. Nationally representative sample of 500 college graduates registered to vote (the total group is estimated to be about 15% of the U.S. population) interviewed Nov. 12-21, 1999.  Margin of error is +/- 4.5%.  For more detail: http://www.dcwatch.com/richards/default.htm



1 To read about Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, see http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/a1_8_17.html

2 Woodward, Augustus Brevoort, “Enquiries into the Necessity or Expediency of Assuming Exclusive Legislation over The District of Columbia,Records of the Columbia Historical Society 8 (1905): 141.

3 See the Three Judge U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia majority opinion http://dccitizensfordemocracy.org/98-1665-majority.htm

4 In 1993, the Statehood Solidarity Committee filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission charging the U.S. with continuing human rights violations under Articles 2 and 20 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, claiming among other things that the people of DC have been denied the fundamental right to equality before the law and the right to equal political participation in their own national government through elected representatives, Case No. 11.204 U.S. vs. Statehood Solidarity Committee.

5 Breakefield v. District of Columbia, 442 F.2d 1227, 1229 (D.C. Cir. 1970).


7 Green, Constance, McLaughlin, Washington, Village And Capital, 1800-1878 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 86.

8 Green, Washington: Village, 153.

9 Wilhelmus B Bryan, A History of the National Capital, 1815-1878. vol. II (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914), 155.

10 Loughborough v. Blake, 18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 317 (1820).

11 Oct. 24, 1822, “Report of the Committee of Twelve,” Records of The Committee on the District of Columbia 1815-1972, HR25A-G4.1, National Archives.

12 Jan. 26, 1824, “Memorial for 107 Inhabitants of DC asking relief for certain disenfranchisements and other grievances,” Records of The Committee on the District of Columbia 1815-1972, HR25A-G4.1, National Archives.

13 Jan. 26, 1824, DC Comm. Rec., HR25A-G4.1, NA.

14 Dec. 28, 1825, “Memorial to the House of Representatives of the U.S. From the Committee appointed by the subscribers to a previous Memorial praying for an amelioration of the civil and political condition of the people of the District of Columbia,” Records of The Committee on the District of Columbia 1815-1972, HR25A-G4.1, National Archives.

15 Dec. 28, 1825, DC Comm. Rec., HR25A-G4.1, NA.

16 Green, Washington: Village, 186.

17 Theodore W.Noyes, “The Presidents and the National Capital,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 20 (1917): 89.

18 The Code of the District of Columbia to March 4, 1929, U.S. Govt. Printing Office (1930): xiii.

19 Green, Washington: Village, 432

20 Green, Washington: Village, 494

21 Green, Washington: Village, 494

22 Steven J. Diner, Democracy, Federalism And The Governance Of The Nation’s Capital: 1790-1974, Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy, University of the District of Columbia, (Washington, D.C., 1987), 56.

23 Mayors and commissioners were only counted once, even if they served more than one term of office.

24 Bryan, A History of the National Capital, 153.

25 John Clagett Proctor, Ed., Washington, Past and Present: A History (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc., 1930), 80.

26 Amos Burr Casselman, “The Virginia Portion of the District,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 12 (1909): 127.

27 Casselman, “The Virginia Portion,” 132.

28 Casselman, “The Virginia Portion,” 136.

29 The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 189-90 (Harold C. Syrett & Jacob E. Cooke eds., 1962).

30 William C. DiGiacomantonio, “To Sell Their Birthright for a Mess of Potage”: The Origins of the D.C. Governance And the Organic Act of 1801,” in “Coming into the City: Essays on Early Washington, D.C. Commemorating the Bicentennial of the Federal Government’s Arrival in 1800,” Washington History 12-1 (Spring/Summer 2000): 43-44.

31 Jan. 26, 1824, DC Comm. Rec., HR25A-G4.1, NA.

32 Feb. 27, 1841, Journal of the Senate of the USA, 1789-1873 Library of Congress _______.

33 Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington Capital City, 1879-1950, vol. II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 26.

34 Green, Washington Capital City, 186.

35 Green, Washington Capital City, 183.

36 Green, Washington Capital City, 253.

37 Photocopy of brochure published by the Ten Miles Square Club, not dated, National Representation file, Historical Society of Washington, DC library.

38 Green, Washington Capital City, 432.

39 Green, Washington Capital City, 432-433. Keith Melder, City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Washington, District of Columbia, 2ed (Washington, D.C.: Intac, Inc., 1997): 425.

40 Martha Derthick, City Politics in Washington, D.C., (Cambridge: Joint Center for Urban Studies, 1962), 74.

41 June 9, 1960, Report submitted by Mr. Celler, from the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives submitted with H.J. Res. 757.

42 June 9, 1960, Celler Report, H.J. Res. 757.

43 Derthick, City Politics, 73. Anthony J. Thompson, The Story of the 23rd Amendment, Senior thesis submitted to the History Department of Princeton University, 1965?:69, Washingtoniana Division, D.C. Public Library.

44 Diner, Democracy, 62.

45 George Will, “The D.C. Vote Stampede,” The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 1978.

46 Judith Best, National Representation for the District of Columbia, (Frederick: University Publications of America, 1984), 9.

47 Northwest Current, March 1-14, 1984.

48 The Washington Post, “Conservatives Unite to Oppose D.C. Amendment,” Dec. 3, 1978.

49 Charles Wesley Harris, Congress and the Governance of the Nation’s Capital: The Conflict of Federal and Local Interests, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995): 274.

50 Timothy Cooper, “The Violator Within,” Legal Times, May 26, 1997.

51 Rep. Tom Davis, “A look at D.C. Voting Rights: Congress Should Rectify this Wrong,” The Washington Post, April 9, 2000, B3.

52 Jamin Raskin, “A Right to Vote,” The American Prospect, August 27, 2001.

53 Sam Smith, Captive Capital: Colonial Life in Modern Washington, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), 71.

54 Smith, Captive Capital, 272.

55 The Eagle, April 15, 1977.

56 Philip G. Schrag, Behind the Scenes: The Politics of a Constitutional Convention, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1985), 25.

57 Schrag, Behind the Scenes, 245.

58 Edward M. Meyers, Public Opinion and the Political Future of the Nation’s Capital (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 177.

Home Statehood DC's Political Status Examined: Struggle for Equality in the District of Columbia

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