WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Monday signed into law legislation nullifying the recent overhaul of the District of Columbia criminal code, but the fight between Congress and local lawmakers is continuing.
The signature merely marks the end of a raucous first chapter in a saga that has left district lawmakers bitterly nursing their political bruises, harboring fresh resentments against national Democrats and bracing to play defense against an activist Republican-controlled House for at least the next two years.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hailed the move in a statement, calling it the end of what he labeled a “soft-on-crime criminal code rewrite that treated violent criminals like victims and discarded the views of law enforcement.”
But even before the bill was formally sent to sent to Biden, House Republicans were promising a season of direct congressional intervention in local D.C. affairs.
“This is just the beginning,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said earlier this month in a celebratory signing ceremony after the vote to cancel the new criminal code passed the Senate with significant Democratic support. “It is a message for the entire nation.”
D.C. Council members sound like they fully believe those promises.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to see more of this for the remainder of this Congress," D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said. “Does this raise a concern that there are going to be other issues? Yes.”
When congressional passage of the measure appeared inevitable and Biden indicated he would sign it, the D.C. Council withdrew the measure. But the move did not spare Biden a politically charged decision on whether to endorse the congressional action.
Biden did not issue a statement accompanying the signing Monday. But he tweeted earlier this month that while he supported statehood for D.C., “I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”
Under terms of Washington’s Home Rule authority, t he House Committee on Oversight and Accountability essentially vets all new D.C. laws and frequently alters or limits them through budget riders. But the criminal code rewrite is the first law to be completely overturned since 1991.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., has pledged that his committee "stands ready to conduct robust oversight of America’s capital city.”
That robust oversight has already begun. Even before Biden signed the bill, the Oversight Committee sent letters summoning Mendelson, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee to testify at a March 29 hearing. The topic of that hearing, according to the letter, is the ominously vague “general oversight of the District of Columbia, including crime, safety, and city management.”
Other House Republicans have already identified areas of interest to target. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia has introduced a resolution to block a police accountability law known as the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act.
Most aspects of that law were passed by the D.C. Council on an emergency basis in 2020, amid the protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s murder; it was made permanent in December 2022. It bans the use of chokeholds by police officers, makes police disciplinary files available to the public, weakens the bargaining power of the police union and limits the use of tear gas to disperse protestors.
“Now that Congress has effectively used its constitutional authority to strike down the D.C. Council’s dangerous Revised Criminal Code Act, we must now move to swiftly block this anti-police measure to ensure our nation’s capital city is safe for all Americans,” Clyde said in a statement.
Clyde is a longtime nemesis of D.C. loyalists, having publicly stated that his ultimate goal is to completely end Washington's Home Rule authority. That sentiment, once a long-shot fringe position, has edged closer to being a mainstream Republican talking point. Former President Donald Trump publicly stated earlier this month that the “federal government should take over control and management of Washington D.C.”
Meanwhile, Oversight Committee member Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has targeted the D.C. Jail for congressional scrutiny. Greene has demanded access to the jail to visit some two dozen detainees from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She's also seeking a complete overview of the jail's conditions.
Other aspects of D.C. legislation remain ripe targets for activist Republicans, such as the District's strict gun control laws or the decision to essentially decriminalize most psychedelics — a move that was approved by D.C. voters in a referendum.
This congressional onslaught of oversight was widely predicted when Republicans took back control of the House in last year's midterm elections. But most local politicians and activists hoped they could count on Democratic control of both the Senate and the White House as a shield. Those hopes rapidly melted away in a storm of political dynamics that amounted to a humiliating setback for the D.C. Council and the larger hopes of Washington ever achieving statehood.
House Republicans were able to put Biden and Senate Democrats in a political bind. By defending D.C.’s right to self-governance, they would open themselves to charges of being soft on criminals at a time of rising crime both in the nation’s capital and across the U.S.
In the end, Biden signaled before the Senate vote that he would not veto the rejection of the criminal code and 33 Democratic senators voted to overturn it. The moves were regarded by statehood activists as a betrayal that they say exposed the hollowness of Democratic support for D.C. statehood.
For now, the D.C. Council maintains that the city's criminal code is dangerously obsolete and desperately in need of reform. But after seeing the initial law turned into a national political issue, there appears to be little appetite to try again in the short term.
Mendelson said that changing the aspects that drew criticism, such as the lowering of maximum penalties for crimes like carjacking, would simply lead to other objections from a Republican House that he said is openly looking for a fight.
“I don’t plan on installing a hotline to Republican leadership in the House and the Senate and calling them every week and asking them for permission to move forward,” Mendelson said.