House votes to overturn DC criminal code and voting laws

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FILE - District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to members of the media about her plans Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington, after winning her third term as mayor. The Republican-led House voted Feb. 9, 2023 to overturn a sweeping rewrite of the criminal code passed by the City Council last year and a new law that would grant noncitizens the right to vote in local elections. The moves may be partially symbolic since both would have to pass the Democratic-held Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House has launched the first salvo in what could be a long-running feud with the District of Columbia over self-government in the nation's capital.

In back-to-back votes, the House voted Thursday to overturn a sweeping rewrite of the criminal code passed by the City Council last year and a new law that would grant noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.

Congressional oversight of the district is written into the Constitution. And while it has been more than three decades since Congress outright nullified a D.C. law, Congress has frequently used alternative methods such as budget riders to alter laws on issues ranging from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.

The House voted 250-173 to overturn the rewrite of the criminal code, which among other things, reduced the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery. The voting rights bill also was overturned by a 260-173 vote.

The moves may be partially symbolic since both would have to pass the Democratic-held Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden. However, both House votes garnered a notable amount of Democratic support with 31 Democrats voting to overturn the criminal code rewrite and 42 voting to overturn the voting measure. Biden has said publicly that he opposes both measures, but has not explicitly stated he would veto them.

Thursday's votes signal a new and openly combative phase in the District's tortured relationship with the federal government.

The debate has put D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in a curious political position. Bowser vetoed the rewrite of the city's criminal code in January, saying the maximum penalty reductions send “the wrong message” on crime prevention, Bowser also apposed a measure that would allow for jury trials in most misdemeanor cases, saying the sudden spike in jury trials would overwhelm the local justice system. Her veto was quickly overridden by the D.C. Council in a 12-1 vote.

Republican lawmakers decried the D.C. government as soft on criminals in the midst of a multi-year local spike in violent crime. Several Republican lawmakers have cited Bowser's opposition to bolster their own arguments.

But Bowser has publicly stated she does not want Congress to get involved in the process, while also citing congressional concern as proof of the validity of her own objections.

“We don’t want any interference on our local laws," she said last week. “Quite frankly, members of Congress have expressed similar concerns. There’s a lot of people that don’t agree with what the council did."

New York Rep. Anthony Esposito, a former police officer, accused the D.C. Council of “empowering criminals at the expense of the public,” and said the new criminal code would ”effectively prevent the local justice system from keeping criminals off of our streets, all while D.C. grapples with a crime wave.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C's nonvoting delegate in the Congress, spent most of the morning House debate playing defense. Norton said the new mandatory minimum penalties would still be higher than those for identical crimes in multiple U.S. states.

Raskin accused House Republicans of ignoring their own public dedication to states’ rights by carrying out a longstanding vendetta against the D.C. government.

“That is the beauty of the federal system which I thought our colleagues supported,” Raskin said. “They’re not really interested in scrutinizing the actual criminal justice policy. They just want to kick the people of Washington, D.C., around. They want to lord it over them.”

After the vote, Norton released a statement saying, “D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black and Brown, are worthy and capable of governing themselves. It is true Congress has absolute power over D.C., but might does not make right.”

The sweeping rewrite of D.C's criminal code has been years in the making; it was approved unanimously last year by the 13-member D.C. Council and carries the support of major stakeholders, including D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb.

“Today’s move to overturn our laws is not about making the District safer or more just,” Schwalb said in a post-vote statement. “Today’s actions are political grandstanding and highlight the urgent need for D.C. statehood.”

The measure to grant noncitizens, including immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, the right to vote in local elections is not unique. Similar measures have passed in multiple jurisdictions around the country, including Takoma Park, Maryland — a liberal bastion on the outskirts of Washington that is Raskin's home district. But multiple Republican critics claimed that the unique nature of D.C. with its hundreds of foreign embassies, made it particularly inappropriate.

Official estimates set the number of noncitizen D.C. residents at around 50,000, out of a total population of just under 700,000 residents.

“For years, Democrats in Washington decried potential foreign influence in our electoral process, but D.C.’s new law potentially allows foreign agents from China, Russia, and other adversaries to participate in local elections held within this nation’s capital city,” said Rep. Nicholas Langworthy, R-N.Y.

Norton, in a Wednesday night debate over the voting law, call the congressional intervention “paternalistic” and said it violated basic democratic ideals of local self-governance.

“There is only one question before this House,” Norton said, "The question is: 'Do you believe in democracy?' "