WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House approved a resolution Wednesday that would block a District of Columbia police accountability bill, further escalating the feud over the right to self-government in the nation’s capital.
The House voted 229-189 on the measure — called a disapproval resolution — marking the third time this year that House Republicans have sought to overturn local D.C. legislation, with some Democratic help, claiming officials have been soft on crime in the midst of a multi-year spike. But the bill is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-led Senate, and President Joe Biden has promised a veto.
Republicans pressed ahead, saying congressional scrutiny of the District's laws is long overdue.
“Just because Congress has not been fulfilling this role in recent decades is not a reason to avoid this responsibility now, especially when we know the nation’s capital city is plunging into a crime crisis,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said during a debate Wednesday.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the District, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes proposed by Republicans would “lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.”
Congressional oversight of the district is written into the Constitution, and lawmakers have frequently used methods such as budget riders to alter D.C. laws on issues ranging from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.
Finally able to set the agenda as the majority in the House, Republicans held back-to-back votes last month to overturn a sweeping rewrite of the criminal code passed by the D.C. Council last year. A second vote was on nullifying a new law that would grant noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.
The GOP-backed resolution overturning the district's criminal code garnered some Democratic support, and Biden signed it into law after the measure passed the Senate overwhelmingly.
This time around more than a dozen House Democrats voted in disapproval of the police accountability law. One of those lawmakers, Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., was recently attacked inside the elevator of her upscale apartment building in Washington. Craig had criticized D.C. government after the assault, claiming that the suspect had 12 arrests and convictions on his record before her incident.
“I got attacked by someone who the District of Columbia has not prosecuted fully over the course of almost a decade, over the course of 12 assaults before mine that morning,” Craig told CBS in Feburary. “And so I think we have to think about how in the world can we make sure that we’re not just letting criminals out.”
But other Democrats appeared to draw a line in the sand against overturning the new police accountability package, which is similar to a bill the party passed in the House after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in the summer of 2020. That bill never became law.
The package passed by the D.C. Council would extend temporary law enforcement transparency and accountability measures first approved after the murder of Floyd, including a ban on the use of chokeholds, requiring officers to use de-escalation tactics before use of force and providing the public access to body camera records. It also reflects similar measures that Biden included in an executive order last spring for federal law enforcement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last month that while Biden "does not support every provision in the policing bill” passed by the D.C. Council, he won’t support efforts to override it. She added, “The president believes that building community trust is integral to fighting crime.”
Washington’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901, and criminal justice experts say that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the criminal laws, similar to many other cities.
The recent sparring in Congress has opened a new and openly combative phase in the District’s tortured relationship with the federal government.
Democrats support statehood for the District and have defended the Council’s right to govern as they see fit. They have called the latest effort by Republicans a violation of Home Rule, which allows the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability to essentially vet all new D.C. laws, although historically it has only altered or limited new laws through budget riders.
“The House of Representatives, in which the nearly 700,000 District of Columbia residents have no voting representation, is attempting to nullify legislation enacted by the local legislature whose members are elected by DC residents,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C’s nonvoting delegate in the Congress, said on the House floor.
“By scheduling this vote, I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes that D.C. residents, the majority of whom are black and brown, are unworthy of governing themselves.”
___ Associated Press reporter Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.