D.C. braces for ‘robust oversight’ after criminal code fiasco

House Republicans are promising a season of direct congressional intervention in local affairs

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) poses for a picture with DC advisory neighborhood commissioner Denise Krepp
U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy poses with DC advisory neighborhood commissioner Denise Krepp at a bill signing ceremony for H.J. Res. 26 at the U.S. Capitol on March 10, 2023.ANNA MONEYMAKER (Getty Images via AFP)

President Joe Biden’s signature on a bill nullifying an overhaul of the District of Columbia criminal code ended a public fight between Congress and local lawmakers. But the battles are only just beginning. Already House Republicans are pledging to increase congressional intervention in local D.C. affairs. House Oversight Committee Chairman Representative James Comer, Republican-Kentucky, has pledged that his committee “stands ready to conduct robust oversight of America’s capital city.”

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 earlier this month in advance of a Senate vote to overrule the city government and block the District’s new crime laws. “Does this raise a concern that there are going to be other issues? Yes.”

The criminal code saga has left District lawmakers bitterly nursing their political wounds, harboring fresh resentments against national Democrats, some of whom supported the criminal code nullification, and bracing to play defense against the activist Republican-controlled House for at least the next two years.

And that robust oversight has already begun. Even before Biden signed the crime bill override on Monday, the House 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 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. Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia has introduced a resolution to block a separate D.C. law — a police accountability measure 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 killing by police; it was made permanent in December 2022. 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.

“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.

Under terms of Washington’s Home Rule authority, the 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.

Clyde, a longtime nemesis of D.C. loyalists, has 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 said earlier this month that the “federal government should take over control and management of Washington D.C.”

Meanwhile, Oversight Committee member Representative 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 and 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 after 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 over the criminal code revision. Defending D.C.’s right to self-governance would open them to charges of being soft on criminals at a time of rising crime both in the nation’s capital and across the U.S.

Republicans highlighted the fact that it reduced maximum penalties for crimes such as carjacking, while D.C. Council members maintained that the new penalties were much higher than the sentencing guidelines in multiple states around the country and far above the vast majority of sentences imposed by judges.

In the end, Biden — despite recent tweets supporting D.C. statehood — 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 national Democratic support for D.C. statehood.

As the Senate vote loomed earlier this month, Mendelson tried to avoid a public defeat by withdrawing the criminal code revisions. But the move did not stop the Senate vote or spare Biden a politically charged decision on whether to endorse the congressional action.

The House also passed a second bill that would have overturned a D.C. law granting non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. But it was never seriously debated or voted upon by the Senate.

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 elements that drew criticism 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,” he said.

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