Updated: Friday, March 3, 2023, at 10:36 a.m.
President Biden announced he will sign Congress’ override of the D.C. Council’s revised criminal code in the likely case it passes the Senate.
Biden said in a tweet Thursday that despite backing D.C.’s ability to self-govern under home rule, he is against signing the code into law because parts of the legislation reduce sentences for property crimes like carjacking. The announcement comes after the GOP-led House of Representatives voted to overturn both the code and a local bill that allows non-citizens to vote in D.C. elections last month with bipartisan support, which the Senate is poised to vote on as early as next week.
Biden’s support of the House’s measure means members of Congress may successfully block a D.C. bill from becoming law for the first time in more than three decades, infringing on the District’s home rule, outlined in a 1973 act aimed at allowing D.C. residents to control their own local affairs.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden said in a tweet.
The revised code would reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for carjacking from seven to four years and drop the mandatory maximum sentence for more severe instances of carjacking, like those involving weapons, from 40 to 24 years. But the city judiciary frequently does not hand out maximum sentences for carjacking or other property crimes, meaning the proposed mandatory maximums are already higher than what the city judiciary is implementing right now.
31 House Democrats backed Republicans’ opposition to the crime bill in the floor vote earlier this month. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting representative in the chamber, said Biden’s resistance to the local bill was “news to her” after his seemingly-staunch support of D.C. statehood previously and that she was “very disappointed” with the announcement, according to The Washington Post.
“[President Biden] believes that every city should have the right to self-government. But this is different,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a conference Wednesday. “The D.C. Council put changes forward over the mayor’s objections.”
The D.C. Council unanimously passed updates to the more than a-century-old code in November, putting forth updates including eliminations of some mandatory minimum sentences and allowance of jury trials for misdemeanors. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the Council’s updated code in January with concerns about the legislation’s policy on crime in the District and its potential to burden the District’s judicial system, which already faces numerous vacancies. The Council overrode her veto in a 12-1 vote later that month.
Leading up to their override, Council members showed their frustration with Bowser’s veto of the revised code, claiming she and her staff neglected to frequently attend meetings where city officials went over specifics of the bill during the 16 years they were drafting it, with some council members decrying Bowser was fear-mongering through her resistance to support the finalized bill.
Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen said in a statement following Biden’s announcement that the criminal code is the result of “extensively debated” and “meticulously crafted” reforms. He said Biden’s resistance to the Council’s proposals is not based on the bill’s contents but rather a signal for his “tough on crime” policies, showing his “hollow” past support of D.C. statehood.
“Today is an unprecedented violation of America’s core principle of self-governance and the latest painful reminder that until the nearly 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia have full statehood and autonomy, we will be seen and treated as a colony, even by those who purport to support us,” Allen said.
D.C. attorney general Brian Schwalb sent a letter of support from other Council members and local organizations to Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-NY, last week asking them to vote against the House’s overturn of the criminal code and voting bill last week.
“I urge the Senate to reject calls for disapproval of D.C. local laws, and instead, to stand up for democratic values, stand against disenfranchisement, and stand with the residents of our Nation’s capital,” Schwalb said.
Just a handful of key Senate votes determine the potential of the bill’s override resolution landing on Biden’s desk for his signature. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV – a frequent holdout member for the Democrat-led Senate – and Bob Casey, D-PA, said last week that they would join the chamber’s Republican minority in voting for the criminal code’s override. The vote of Sen. John Fetterman, D-PA, also remains in the air after he took a step back from the Senate earlier this month after checking himself into the hospital for depression.
The District faced an uptick in vehicle thefts during 2022 that has continued so far this year but crime, in general, has dropped, despite House Republicans like Rep. James Comer, R-KY, and Tom Cole, R-OK, sounding alarms about the bill’s “soft on crime” policies that reduce mandatory minimum sentences and increase jury trials prior to the House vote.
“All Americans should feel safe in their capital city, but they don’t because of D.C. Democrats’ leniency towards criminals at the expense of American safety,” Comer said earlier this month.
The Senate will also soon vote on the Local Voting Rights Amendment Act, which allows non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, to vote in local elections after the House GOP voted to overturn the legislation earlier this month with support from 42 Democratic representatives.
The legislation, penned by Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau, grants non-citizens the right to vote in mayoral, D.C. Council, attorney general, State Board of Education and Advisory Neighborhood Commission elections, as well as local ballot measures.
“I think that that has always been left up to local communities to decide who should vote in local elections,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-MD, said during a meeting last month.
This post has been updated to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the vote to pass the revised criminal code was 12-1. The revised criminal code passed unanimously and the council overrode Bowser’s veto in a 12-1 vote. We regret this error. The Hatchet has also updated this story to include a statement from Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen. The Hatchet has also updated this story to clarify the proposed mandatory maximums in the revised criminal code are already higher than what the city judiciary is implementing right now.
This article appeared in the March 6, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.