The modern office of delegate from the District of Columbia was established in 1971. Since then, it has been represented by just two individuals, both of them African AmericanDemocrats. Its current delegate is Eleanor Holmes Norton, an advocate for D.C. statehood who assumed office in 1991. Accordingly, she has held the seat for more than 60% of its existence.
Federal legislation to recreate a congressional delegate position for D.C. was first seriously debated by Congress in 1970. President Richard Nixon had repeatedly expressed his support for full voting representation for the District of Columbia. An initial proposal by Rep. Earle Cabell (D–TX) suggested creating two non-voting delegate positions for D.C.: one for the House and one for the Senate. Concerns that the Senate would stall such a proposal spurred the consideration of a compromise bill introduced by Rep. Ancher Nelsen (R–MN), who at the time served as ranking member of the House Committee on the District of Columbia. Nelsen's proposal guaranteed non-voting representation only in the House.
In a written message to House Minority Leader Gerald Ford on August 6, 1970, Nixon reaffirmed that "voting representation for the District of Columbia is my goal" and strongly urged Ford to press for the bill's passage. Ford and House Majority Leader Carl Albert both crafted messages to their respective caucuses in response, encouraging their members to support the measure. During closing arguments on the House floor, two representatives made particularly passionate pleas on the capital city's behalf. The first came from Rep. John Conyers (D–MI), who decried the "rank hypocrisy" of denying "a voice in our Government to the people who live closest to it." The second came from Rep. Michael J. Harrington (D–MA), who noted the lack of attention shown by the Congress to Washington:
"I have visited those parts of the city which the tourist never sees, and I am shaken. Many areas damaged in the riot of 1968 have never been repaired. Many buildings are still blackened and boarded up. Housing is inadequate, schools are inadequate, transportation is inadequate, and no one has real authority to act effectively for the black majority of this city. The Congress simply does not have the time or the interest to run a large city. It is time we recognized this fact, and permitted the city to govern itself. The complexities of city government, the day-to-day decisions should not be placed in the hands of 535 different people — all of whom have to pass on matters about which they have little concern and about which they lack the time to be informed."
Opposition to the legislation was largely spearheaded by Rep. John L. McMillan (D–SC), the segregationist chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia. As chairman, McMillan repeatedly opposed home rule and greater rights for residents of D.C., largely because of its sizable Black population. The bill ultimately passed the House with 302 votes in favor and 57 votes against. The "nay" votes came predominately from conservative Southerners. On September 9, 1970, the legislation passed the Senate. President Nixon, who called the District's lack of voting rights "one of the truly unacceptable facts of American life," signed the District of Columbia Delegate Act 13 days later.
The first election for the seat was held on March 23, 1971. Democrat Walter Fauntroy won the race and went on to serve in the Congress for nearly 20 years. A week after being sworn in, Fauntroy became one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A further effort to grant the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress via a constitutional amendment came in 1978. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment passed both chambers of Congress, but it failed to receive the necessary number of state ratifications by its 1985 deadline. Reflecting increased political polarization, efforts to secure D.C. further voting rights since have largely failed along party lines.
Since 1993, when the House of Representatives has been under Democratic control, delegates, including the District of Columbia's delegate, have been allowed to cast non-binding floor votes when the House of Representatives was operating in the Committee of the Whole.
^"D.C. Delegate". The New York Times. September 16, 1970. Retrieved July 11, 2023.
^The practice began with the 103rd Congress, but was revoked when the Republicans retook the House for the 104th Congress. Democrats reinstated the practice in the 110th Congress, but Republicans again revoked it in the 112th Congress.