WASHINGTON – Following through on plans for robust oversight of the nation's capital, House Republicans on Wednesday accused Washington officials of losing control of local affairs, voting to overturn a police reform package passed by the D.C. Council amid nationwide protests about police brutality.
“Your position seems to have been ‘Hands off our city’ and that’s not going to fly with the Republicans on the House Oversight Committee,” Rep. James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told members of the D.C. Council. “We want to work with you and you’re going to have to work with us.”
The measure, approved by the panel along purely partisan lines, now goes to the full House.
It's likely to pass the Republican-controlled House, but its prospects are less clear in the Senate. And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that President Joe Biden would veto the bill, if necessary.
“While he does not support every provision in the policing bill," Biden won’t support efforts to override it, she said. “The president believes that building community trust is integral to fighting crime.”
The latest salvo against the district's home rule followed Congress' action earlier this yea r to nullify a rewrite of the local criminal code. Democrats defended the Council’s right to govern as they see fit and Republicans maintained that the police reform law had demoralized the police force.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen took the brunt of the criticism, with multiple Republican committee members saying the council's policies were soft on criminals and anti-police in the midst of a crime wave.
“D.C. clearly has a crime crisis,” said Comer, R-Ky. “Our nation’s capital has deteriorated and declined. D.C. officials have not carried out their responsibility to serve the citizens.”
Mendelson maintained that overall crime numbers were down. But he acknowledged that a spike in homicides and car jackings had fueled public anxiety over safety issues.
“People should feel safe, and it is a problem that many residents of the district don’t,” he said.
The police reform measure was passed by the D.C. Council on an emergency basis in 2020 and made permanent last December. It bans the use of chokeholds by police officers, makes police disciplinary files more available to the public, weakens the bargaining power of the police union and limits the use of tear gas to disperse protestors.
Under terms of Washington’s Home Rule authority, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability essentially vets all new D.C. laws. It frequently alters or limits new laws through budget riders.
Congress voted three weeks ago to overturn a comprehensive rewrite of Washington's criminal code. Biden signed the measure last week.
Republicans at the time pledged vigorous oversight of the district. And Wednesday's hearing was just the start, as GOP members moved beyond the district's policing bill to raise a broad range of issues including school truancy, bike lanes and abortion.
At the hearing, Mendelson defended the law saying it was “not an attack on police” but designed in part to make it easier to weed out bad officers without the blanket protection of the police union.
“It enhances our police chief’s ability to strengthen the force by firing officers who engage in egregious misconduct or commit serious offences,” Mendelson said.
Gregg Pemberton, head of the Washington police union, largely sided with congressional Republicans in saying that the law was part of an anti-police campaign by the council that had led hundreds of officers to resign.
Pemberton accused the council of “chasing headlines and jumping on the bandwagon of anti-police rhetoric.”
D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb watched the hearings and concluded that they didn't have much to do with the actual specifics of the police reform law.
“Unfortunately it's what I expected,” Schwalb told The Associated Press. “It's political theater ... They're just using the District of Columbia as a political pawn.”
Democratic committee members used the hearing to lobby for statehood for the district or to question oversight. Some said that if congressional Republicans were serious about violent crime, they would back serious gun-control legislation.
“I don’t understand why we’re having this hearing,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. “I could go through a lot of states right now, especially on the red side, where I don’t like their policies, I don’t like their elected officials and I’d like to have a hearing to second guess them and overturn their legislation.”
Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., said that even though the committee has the constitutional right to delve into district laws, it should leave the running of the city to its elected officials.
“I would encourage folks who are interested in running cities to go run for city council or run for mayor,” said Garcia, a former mayor of Long Beach, California. “Should we be having hearings on why Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured people? Should we be having hearings on why Louisiana and Mississippi have some of the lowest life expectancy?”
At times, some of the Republican critics seemed fuzzy on the specifics of the laws they were criticizing. Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama asked why the district allows 25-year-old criminals to be tried as minors. A mystified Allen said it doesn't, so Palmer quickly shifted focus to the state of the district's schools, telling the two council members: “You've got crappy schools. Your schools are not only dropout factories, they're inmate factories.”
Later, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado asked Allen why public urination had been decriminalized. Allen said that it hadn't.
Mendelson and others have expressed concern that the council will spend the next two years fending off aggressive intervention from an activist Republican-held House. Comer made it clear that Wednesday's hearing will be the first of many. The next D.C.-focused hearing was scheduled for May 19 with Mayor Muriel Bowser as the sole witness.