Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution grants the U.S. Congress "exclusive jurisdiction" over the city. The District did not have an elected municipal government until the passage of the 1973 Home Rule Act. The Act devolved certain Congressional powers to a local government administered by an elected mayor, currently Vincent C. Gray, and the thirteen-member Council of the District of Columbia. However, Congress retains the right to review and overturn laws created by the council and intervene in local affairs.
Each of the city's eight wards elects a single member of the council and four at-large members represent the District as a whole. The council chair is also elected at-large. There are 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) elected by small neighborhood districts. ANCs traditionally wield a great deal of influence and the city government routinely takes their suggestions into careful consideration.
The mayor and council set local taxes and a budget, which must be approved by Congress. The Home Rule Act prohibits the District from imposing a commuter tax on non-residents who make up over 60% of the city's workforce. In addition, over 50% of property in the District is also exempt from taxation. The Government Accountability Office and other organizations have estimated that these revenue restrictions create a structural deficit in the city's budget of anywhere between $470 million and over $1 billion per year. While Congress typically provides larger grants to the District for federal programs such as Medicaid and the local justice system, analysts claim that the payments do not resolve the imbalance.
The District's local justice system is centered on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, whose judges are appointed by the President. The District's local courts, though operated by the federal government, are separate from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which only hear cases regarding federal law. The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia is also appointed by the President and is responsible for prosecuting both federal and local crimes. In addition to the District's own Metropolitan Police Department, many federal law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction in the city as well; most visibly the U.S. Park Police, founded in 1791.
The city's local government, particularly during the mayoralty of Marion Barry, was criticized for mismanagement and waste. During his administration in 1989, The Washington Monthly magazine claimed that the District had "the worst city government in America."Barry was elected mayor in 1978, serving three successive four-year terms, followed by a fourth term starting in 1995. That year, Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board to oversee all municipal spending and rehabilitate the city government. Mayor Anthony Williams won election in 1998. His administration oversaw a period of greater prosperity, urban renewal, and budget surpluses. The District regained control over its finances in 2001 and the oversight board's operations were suspended.
Washington, D.C., observes all federal holidays. The District also celebrates Emancipation Day on April 16, which commemorates the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
Federal representation and taxation
Residents of the District of Columbia have no voting representation in Congress. They are represented in the House of Representatives by a non-voting delegate, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C. At-Large), who may sit on committees, participate in debate, and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor. The District has no representation in the United States Senate. Unlike residents of U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico or Guam, which also have non-voting delegates, D.C. residents are subject to all U.S. federal taxes. In the financial year 2007, D.C. residents and businesses paid $20.4 billion in federal taxes; more than the taxes collected from 19 states and the highest federal taxes per capita.
A 2005 poll found that 78% of Americans did not know that residents of the District of Columbia have less representation in Congress than residents of the 50 states. Efforts to raise awareness about the issue have included campaigns by grassroots organizations and the featuring of the city's unofficial motto, "Taxation Without Representation", on D.C. vehicle license plates. There is evidence of nationwide approval for DC voting rights; various polls indicate that 61 to 82% of Americans believe that D.C. should have voting representation in Congress. Despite public support, attempts to grant the District voting representation, including the D.C. statehood movement and the proposed District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, have been unsuccessful.
Opponents of D.C. voting rights propose that the Founding Fathers never intended for District residents to have a vote in Congress since the Constitution makes clear that representation must come from the states. Those opposed to making D.C. a state claim that such a move would destroy the notion of a separate national capital and that statehood would unfairly grant Senate representation to a single city.
District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) operates the city's 123 public schools.The number of students in DCPS steadily decreased for 39 years until 2009. In the 2010–11 school year, 46,191 students were enrolled in the public school system. DCPS has one of the highest-cost yet lowest-performing school systems in the country, both in terms of infrastructure and student achievement.Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration made sweeping changes to the system by closing schools, replacing teachers, firing principals, and using private education firms to aid curriculum development.
The District of Columbia Public Charter School Board monitors the 52 public charter schools in the city. Due to the perceived problems with the traditional public school system, enrollment in public charter schools has steadily increased. As of fall 2010, D.C. charter schools had a total enrollment of about 32,000, a 9% increase from the prior year. The District is also home to 92 private schools, which enrolled approximately 18,000 students in 2008. The District of Columbia Public Library operates 25 neighborhood locations including the landmark Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Private universities include American University (AU), the Catholic University of America (CUA), Gallaudet University, George Washington University (GW), Georgetown University (GU), Howard University, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The Corcoran College of Art and Design provides specialized arts instruction and other higher-education institutions offer continuing, distance and adult education. The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) is a public university providing undergraduate and graduate education. The District is known for its medical research institutions such as Washington Hospital Center and the Children's National Medical Center, as well as the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In addition, the city is home to three medical schools and associated teaching hospitals at George Washington, Georgetown, and Howard universities.
According to a 2010 study, Washington-area commuters spent 70 hours a year in traffic delays, which tied with Chicago for having the nation's worst road congestion. However, 37% of Washington-area commuters take public transportation to work, the second-highest rate in the country. An additional 12% of D.C. commuters walked to work, 6% carpooled, and 3% traveled by bicycle in 2010. A 2011 study by Walk Score found that Washington was the seventh-most walkable city in the country with 80% of residents living in neighborhoods that are not car dependent.
An extensive network of streets, parkways, and arterial avenues forms the core of the District's surface transportation infrastructure. Due to protests by local residents during the freeway revolts of the 1960s, much of the proposed interstate highway system through the middle of Washington was never built. Interstate 95, the nation's major east coast highway, therefore bends around the District to form the eastern portion of the Capital Beltway. The funds that had been dedicated for additional highway construction were instead redirected to the region's public transportation infrastructure. The interstate highways that do continue into Washington, including Interstate 66 and Interstate 395, both terminate shortly after entering the city.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the Washington Metro, the city's rapid transit system, as well as Metrobus. Both systems serve the District and its suburbs. Metro opened on March 27, 1976 and presently consists of 86 stations and 106.3 miles (171.1 km) of track. With an average of about one million trips each weekday, Metro is the second-busiest rapid transit system in the country. Metrobus serves over 400,000 riders each weekday, making it the nation's sixth-largest bus system. The city also operates its own DC Circulator bus system, which connects commercial areas within central Washington.
Union Station is the main train station in Washington, D.C., and handles approximately 70,000 people each day. It is Amtrak's second-busiest station with 4.6 million passengers annually and serves as the southern terminus for the Northeast Corridor and Acela Express routes. Maryland's MARC and Virginia's VRE commuter trains and the Metrorail Red Line also provide service into Union Station. Expansion plans announced in 2011 will make Union Station the city's primary intercity bus transit center.
Three major airports serve the District. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is located across from downtown Washington in Arlington, Virginia and has its own Metrorail station. Given its proximity to the city, Reagan National has extra security precautions required by the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone. Major international flights arrive and depart from Washington Dulles International Airport, located 26.3 miles (42.3 km) west of the District in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is located 31.7 miles (51.0 km) northeast of the District in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
An expected 32% increase in transit usage within the District by 2030 has spurred construction of a new DC Streetcar system to interconnect the city's neighborhoods. Construction has also started on an additional Metro line that will connect Washington to Dulles airport. The District and adjacent Arlington County launched Capital Bikeshare in September 2010; it is currently one of the largest bicycle sharing systems in the country with over 1,100 bicycles and 110 stations. Marked bicycle lanes currently exist on 48 miles (77 km) of streets and the city plans to further expand the network.