DC to pull new crime law; Senate still plans to reject it

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced the withdrawal of the law, which would have overhauled how the nation’s capital prosecutes and punishes crime

Mayor Muriel Bowser
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, accompanied by DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, right, speaks at a news conference in March 2020 in Washington.Andrew Harnik (AP)

The DC Council is withdrawing a sweeping rewrite of the capital city’s criminal code from consideration, just before a US Senate vote that seemed set to overturn the measure. But the move will not prevent the Senate vote or spare President Joe Biden a politically charged decision on whether to endorse the congressional action.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced the withdrawal of the law, which would have overhauled how the nation’s capital prosecutes and punishes crime. It was a rare move that he said wasn’t prohibited under Washington’s Home Rule authority.

“If Republicans choose to go ahead with a hollow vote, that’s their choice,” Mendelson said. “If they vote, they will be voting on nothing.”

Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Hagerty, one of the leading critics of the new criminal code, indicated that the vote to overturn will proceed as planned this week.

“This desperate, made-up maneuver not only has no basis in the DC Home Rule Act, but underscores the completely unserious way the DC Council has legislated,” Hagerty said in a statement. “No matter how hard they try, the Council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous DC soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., confirmed that the vote will take place Wednesday. A Senate leadership aide said the vote would be on the House disapproval resolution, rather than the DC Council’s transmission to the Senate. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans that were not yet official.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic majority whip, said Monday that Senate Democrats were “about 50/50 as of last week” on the bill.

Congress reviews all newly passed DC laws under the Home Rule arrangement, and frequently alters or limits them through budget riders. But the criminal code rewrite seems set to be the first law since 1991 to be completely overturned. The measure to reject the law passed the House and faces a Senate vote this week.

Despite Democratic control of the Senate, the criminal code seems likely to be rejected. One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, already has said he will vote to overturn the law. Another, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, is in the hospital, seeking treatment for clinical depression.

Hopes for presidential intervention were quashed last week when Biden stated that he would not use his veto if the measure reaches his desk. Biden publicly supports DC statehood and generally objects to Congress overturning the laws of the city’s elected officials.

The debate has been complicated by the fact that Washington’s own Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, opposes the new criminal code. Bowser vetoed the measure in January but was overridden by the council.

In vetoing the revised criminal code, Bowser said she opposed provisions such as a reduction in the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, robbery and other offenses.

“Anytime there’s a policy that reduces penalties, I think it sends the wrong message,” she said in January.

Bowser has said she prefers that Congress stay out of the District’s affairs, but her veto has been frequently cited by critics in Congress as proof that the criminal code revision was out of step with mainstream Democratic thought.

Mendelson said Monday that the criminal code had been hijacked by Republicans in Congress, eager to create a hot-button issue that would carry through the 2024 presidential elections.

Mendelson said the controversy was designed to put Biden and congressional Democrats in a political bind; by defending DC’s right to self-governance, they would open themselves to charges of being soft on crime at a time of rising crime both in the nation’s capital and across the US, he said.

“This is about using the District for national political purposes,” he said. “Crime lends itself easily to demagogic rhetoric.”

Mendelson said the reduced maximum penalties for different crimes still set the maximum far above the sentences chosen by the vast majority of judges around the country. He accused congressional Republicans of willfully spreading misinformation on the subject – singling out House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who told CNBC Monday morning that the new DC code “decriminalized everything,” including carjacking.

Mendelson acknowledged that the D.C. Council had essentially lost control of the public narrative on the issue.

“We have not explained as well as we need to what this bill does, and that’s our fault,” he said. “The messaging just got out of our control.”

Durbin said Bowser’s opposition changed the perception of the new criminal code as it arrived at Congress. The mayoral veto and council override amounted to “a pretty mixed message coming out of DC,” he said.

Mendelson said the council now plans “to calm things down” and revisit the criminal code at a later date.

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