D.C. Council Attempts to Withdraw Radical Crime Bill
The D.C. Council withdrew a radical rewrite of the city’s criminal code Monday, city council chairman Phil Mendelson (D) informed Vice President Kamala Harris, in her capacity as president of the Senate. “Withdrawal enables the Council to work on the measure in light of Congressional comments, and to re-transmit it later,” said Mendelson. The act faced mounting opposition after President Biden reversed his position and declared he would sign a congressional resolution blocking the measure.
Billed as a modernization of the criminal code, the D.C. Council’s 2022 crime bill also widely reduced maximum sentences for robberies, carjackings, home invasion burglaries, and illegal gun possessions, which have spiked in the District over the past three years. The act was so controversial that even The Washington Post editorial board warned that “Washington could become a more dangerous city” if it became law. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) also opposed and vetoed the measure.
“The Council has gone far beyond the modernization of our criminal laws to include controversial policy proposals best addressed in stand-alone bills,” wrote Bowser. “I hear from DC residents daily who are most concerned about being attacked in their home, car, or on our streets. Reducing the current legal penalties for these violent offenses sends the wrong message to our residents when we are using every resource in our government to drive down crime.”
The D.C. Council voted 12-1 to override Bowser’s veto on January 17.
However, under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, passed in 1973, any law passed by the city council must be delivered to both houses of Congress for a 30-day review, or 60 days if it changes the criminal code. Congress may effectively veto any city measure by passing a resolution of disapproval.
The D.C. city council transmitted D.C. Act 24-789, the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, to Congress on January 27.
Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) introduced a resolution of disapproval (H.J. Res. 26). The resolution passed the U.S. House 250-173 on February 9, with 31 Democrats joining the Republicans. The motion is scheduled for a vote in the Senate this week.
For his part, President Biden declared his opposition to H.J. Res. 26 on February 6 in a “Statement of Administration Policy” (SAP). Then, on Thursday, Biden tweeted, “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. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.” Biden’s apparent reversal left House progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), fuming.
Mendelson decided to withdraw the act in response to Biden’s change of position. “It’s quite clear to me that the headwinds that have prevailed in Congress are about the politics of next year’s election and not about the substance of what is in the criminal code,” he said in a Monday press conference. “The fact is the criminal code has hit the headwinds, which is why I pulled it back.”
“My withdrawal of this legislation means that D.C. Act 24-789 is not properly before Congress at this time,” wrote Mendelson. But Senator Bill Haggerty (R-Tenn.), the resolution’s Senate sponsor, disagreed. He called the council chairman’s withdrawal letter a “desperate, made-up maneuver” with “no basis in the DC Home Rule Act” that “underscores the completely unserious way the Council has legislated.”
“Not only does the statute not allow for a withdrawal of a transmission,” an anonymous Senate leadership aide told The Washington Post, “but at this point the Senate Republican privileged motion will be acting on the House disapproval resolution, rather than the D.C. Council’s transmission to the Senate. We still expect the vote to occur.” In other words, the disapproval resolution will get priority consideration, meaning the Senate would act on that before acknowledging the council chairman’s withdrawal letter, even if it were a legitimate motion.
President Biden’s SAP also declared his opposition to H.J. Res. 24, which would block a D.C. act allowing non-citizens, including illegal immigrants, to vote. The U.S. House also passed H.J. Res. 24 on February 9, by a vote of 260-162, an even more lopsided majority than H.J. Res. 26. However, to date, President Biden has not publicly reversed his opposition to H.J. Res. 24.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.