Home Home Rule Sam Jordan - "Congress Needs a Better Excuse"
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Congress Needs A Better Excuse
Samuel Jordan

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson did, as reported by Jan Eichorn in themail on May 20, use his political muscle to support House Democrats who used a discharge petition to take a home rule measure from the House District Committee chaired by the legendarily obstructionist, John McMillan of South Carolina. Although, the discharge petition prevailed in this instance by a vote of 213 to 183, the home rule bill at issue was not passed but fell to a substitute proposal from Rep. Sisk of California, which would create a home rule charter commission.

Two referenda would be required by DC residents. The first was to approve the charter commission concept, which would authorize a panel of legal and governmental experts to draft a municipal charter for the District. The second vote would ratify or reject the charter. If the voters ratified the charter, Congress would have to approve of it by inaction. Should either House of the Congress have rejected the measure within ninety days, the charter would have failed. Congress could not change the charter, merely accept or reject it. This hopelessly Byzantine routine was the substitute for a direct vote on a home rule bill that had been successfully “discharged.”

The Sisk charter commission was similar to charter proposals introduced by Sen. McCarran of Nevada in 1946 and Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon in 1959. A ‘disturbed and dismayed” Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., called into WTOP News to express his concern and his intention to “confer with local civil rights leaders.” Dr. King even threatened to organize marches in Washington, DC, for home rule. His chief collaborator, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, said, “. . . if they keep messing with us, we won’t just come and march, we might camp in the streets.” Locals rued the incendiary rhetoric by the good Reverend. The House District Committee did not give up after losing the discharge petition in September of 1965. They used the Sisk bill to defeat the administration bill which had been discharged, then tried to defeat the Sisk bill in committee and did not succeed. Therefore, the Sisk bill was reported out, but local leaders prevailed upon the Senate not to accept the Sisk bill in conference, and the matter died. As a result, there was an eight-year wait until the passage of the Home Rule Charter in 1973, one year following McMillan’s defeat. 

More importantly, when the majority of Congress had taken possession of the home rule bill through the discharge petition process, they did nothing. The fate of the home rule bill, no longer blocked by McMillan and his committee, was the same as that of several scores of home rule bills that had been passed by the Senate or proposed by House members between 1877 and 1965 — no action. The gravamen of my comment on John McMillan, is that, although he was vilified as the bane of District self-government, he was a scapegoat for the will of the majority of Congress. When Congress had an opportunity to vote on home rule, they punted even after circumventing McMillan.

Today, we have the same scenario playing in Congress. The Washington Post, in its editorial of May 21, “A Civil Right on Hold,“ notes that Rep. Hoyer is hoping to obtain the magic 218 votes needed to take the DC House Voting Rights bill directly to the House floor — the discharge petition strategy — without the NRA gun law amendment. He can’t find the votes. There is not a majority of members in the House who would support the principle of enfranchisement for the District, even the pseudo-enfranchisement offered by the DC House Voting Rights bill. The Post hopes that President Obama will intervene like Johnson. Without the convenience of a John McMillan villain, what is Congress’ excuse, fear of the NRA? Any excuse will do.

District residents might well reflect on this history. If we don’t make the case for enfranchisement and complete autonomy with a solid local and national campaign, we must not depend upon Congress to do it for us.

 
Home Home Rule Sam Jordan - "Congress Needs a Better Excuse"

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