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Posted at 5:58 PM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Why does the D.C. Council have 13 members?

By Mike DeBonis

In the ol' not-a-column last week, I pondered whether, legislatively speaking, the District of Columbia is "overgoverned" or "undergoverned."

When I say "undergoverned," I mean that there are a mere 13 legislators responsible for lawmaking and executive oversight of a government that encompasses state, county and municipal functions. As I mentioned in the column:

With a 13-member council doing the lawmaking done by much larger bicameral assemblies in 49 states, the barriers to legislating are lower in the District than anywhere in the nation. In less populous Wyoming, for instance, passing a law means convincing majorities in a 60-seat House and 30-seat Senate.

But in the District, "you can do anything if you have seven votes," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a defender of council prerogatives but also a frequent critic of the body's overreach.

That goes not only for the stuff of municipal ordinances -- say, noise laws -- but also for the stuff of state oversight -- say, pharmaceutical sales regulations. There lies part of why the city has been a leader in recent years on issues such as gay marriage and taxing disposable bags that have been stymied in other, similarly liberal legislatures (ahem, Maryland).

So why only 13 members of the council? I consulted Nelson Rimensnyder, a former congressional aide who was involved in the drafting what eventually became the Home Rule Act (and also a voting-rights activist and sometime Republican candidate for local office).

He's done quite a bit of research on the subject and traces the history all the way back to the turn of the 19th century, when a commission charged with studying the governance for what was then the Territory of Columbia recommended a governorship and a 25-member legislative assembly.

But the recommendation never became reality until the 1871, when the District of Columbia as it's currently known was created, consolidating the chartered cities of Washington and Georgetown. Congress at that time created a government consisting of a presidentially appointed governor, an appointed Board of Public Works and a 22-member elected assembly. That, of course, didn't last long, as Alexander Robey "Boss" Shepherd's fiscal excesses and other factors led to the 1874 dissolution of self-government and the re-imposition of direct congressional rule via a three-member board of appointed commissioners.

In the ensuing century, several home rule proposals emerged -- most of them introduced by Republicans and most of them proposing a governor/assembly form of government. President Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, appointed a commission to study the issue, Rimensnyder said, that recommended a 25-member legislative assembly. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower also endorsed home rule measures including a 25-member assembly, Rimensnyder said. But none of those proposals had congressional support.

When in the 1960s home rule fervor reached a higher pitch, a partisan divide emerged, Rimensnyder said. Republicans tended to favor the governor/assembly approach, with a 25-member legislature -- as did Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), who became chair of the House committee on the District.

But local Democratic establishment did not agree. "They said, 'We're a city, a municipality. We should have a city council," said Rimensnyder, who said he was asked by Diggs to survey the local Democratic players at the time.

By the time the issue ripened in the early 1970s, he said, the mayor/council option was the consensus. The Senate, he recalls, sent over a bill establishing a 12-member council; the House added an elected chairman to make 13 members. That is what passed Congress in 1973, and thus it is today. (I've also reached out to my colleague Colby King, who was also involved as a Senate committee staff member at the time. He is checking legislative reports for more background.)

Rimensnyder identifies the basic irony here -- that it was the preferences of local Democrats that led to the city's citylike rather than statelike treatment: "It's so contrary to the thinking now, which is that we want to be a state. And now the Republicans say, you're not a state, you're a city."

In the years since, local lawmakers have undertaken a number of attempts to rechristen the District's governing institutions. In 1977, D.C. Council member Arrington Dixon (D-At Large) proposed changing the title of mayor to governor, and referring to the legislature as a senate, not a council. The chairman of the council would be elected as lieutenant governor. More recently, Mayor Anthony A. Williams floated in 2006 a proposal simply to change the mayor's title to governor.

By Mike DeBonis  | February 7, 2011; 5:58 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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Next: DeMorning DeBonis: Feb. 8, 2011

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