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The 51st State? Washington DC Revisits an Uphill Cause With New Fervor

But the differences transcend administrations. They reflect irritants in a relationship that inextricably binds the city’s roughly 710,000 residents — Ms. Bowser’s estimate was slightly off — to a federal colossus that is vastly more powerful. The city regularly supports federal officials with assistance as mundane as building the reviewing stands for inaugural parades and as crucial as rescuing the Capitol from thugs. Ms. Bowser did not respond to a request for an interview.

To be sure, the city has reaped huge rewards from tourism, the federal government’s devotion to the city’s parks and culture, and the throng of businesses whose prosperity rests on the federal government.

But it remains more an appendage than a partner. The District of Columbia government gained substantial authority to govern itself in 1973, but Congress can overturn its laws on a whim (and has done so). The city can arrest people suspected in crimes, but not try them; the federal government runs the courts and decides which cases come to trial. Capitol Hill decides how much federal money the city gets for services like health care and, lately, pandemic relief, and some officials complain that it is being shortchanged.

Beyond the big issues, there is the sand in the gears. One Washington resident collects antique slot machines as a hobby, Mr. Mendelson said, but federal law bars placing slot machines in the capital city. Only an act of Congress can change that, and Congress is not interested. District of Columbia officials want to strictly enforce laws against hate crimes, he said, but discretion in prosecuting felons is reserved for the U.S. attorney for the district, a Trump administration appointee.

And then there are the deadbeat-dad arguments over money: As of October, the District of Columbia government claimed it was still owed $7.2 million for its work in assisting the inauguration of Mr. Trump four years ago, in 2017.

“Collecting has been a problem from time to time,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But I don’t think we have ever been stiffed for an inauguration.”

The city’s advocates are certain that relations will improve under a Biden administration. For starters, Ms. Norton said, Congress could approve legislation she has filed to transfer authority over the District of Columbia National Guard from the federal government to the mayor.

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