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‘Held accountable’: Biden, Democrats hand DC officials a gift disguised as a rebuke

D.C. code would have brought ‘dismissal of a lot of misdemeanor cases,’ Dem senator says

D.C. statehood activists protest a measure that would block a revised criminal code for Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
D.C. statehood activists protest a measure that would block a revised criminal code for Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

March has, so far, been a month of miscalculation in Washington.

It was on full display as the Senate this week passed, 81-14, one of the most emotionally charged bills to hit Capitol Hill in some time, a House GOP-crafted resolution that would block a new Washington, D.C., criminal code. President Joe Biden has said he will sign the blocking measure into law.

The D.C. Council miscalculated by ignoring Biden’s long history of favoring stiff penalties for serious crimes. Council leaders also miscalculated just how badly politically vulnerable House and Senate Democrats are and their need to appear tough on crime heading into the 2024 election cycle.

Biden and his White House team might have miscalculated how many House Democrats from swing districts would feel a need to vote to reject a revised D.C. criminal code. And Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser appears to have miscalculated all of the above.

Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal, a former Connecticut state attorney general, voted for the measure that blocks D.C.’s revised code from becoming local law. He did so even while describing himself Wednesday as “a firm believer in home rule.”

“I think they should make decisions about what revisions to the protocols work best,” Blumenthal said, referring to D.C. officials, before describing what he sees as flaws in the revised code. “But the police chief opposed it. The mayor opposed it and vetoed it.

“There’s some really serious issues there, like giving jury trials to every misdemeanor,” Blumenthal said with a shake of his head. “It would clog the courts. It would create backlogs and advanced costs for the District of Columbia, which can ill afford … those additional expenditures. But the main point is it would probably mean dismissal of a lot of misdemeanor cases.”

The measure blocking the criminal code bill — which the Council advanced by overriding Bowser’s veto, fueled by her worries of lower sentences for some violent crimes and clogged local courts — was not just another piece of legislation to many of the lawmakers and staffers who spent weeks studying it or to many of the journalists covering it. That’s because a large cross section of those groups live and work inside the District of Columbia and value the concept of “home rule,” meaning local officials rather than members of Congress make laws and run D.C.

In fact, many opponents of the blocking measure appear to be placing home rule over what 219 House Republicans and 31 House Democrats, joined by Biden and 31 Senate Democrats — Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., voted “present” — concluded was a flawed revision to the criminal code that, over the long term, would make Washington less safe.

‘Stomp on D.C.’

“Any effort to go forward on this vote — it’s just a way to try to stomp on D.C.,” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday. “I believe in D.C. home rule because the provisions of the crime bill are sensible and in line with where the majority of states are in America. And third, because D.C. is trying to withdraw the bill.”

But Blumenthal sees the system working according to the letter of the law, agreeing with other senators that the D.C. Council has an opportunity and the political incentives to work with Bowser and law enforcement officials to further revise the new code.

Asked if he thinks the limits of home rule have been exposed, Blumenthal responded: “No, I think it shows the need for home rule, where local officials can be held accountable, directly and immediately, for the measures that they take.”

Biden and his aides have argued he has a legal duty, under the law that established home rule, to nix any D.C. laws they deem too flawed. White House aides contend Biden made his decision after doing a standard, line-by-line policy review of the new D.C. code; Senate Democrats who voted to block the code contend Biden’s decision prompted them to do the same.

“Look, the president has been very clear [that] we need to do more to reduce crime, to make communities safer, to save lives,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. “So the way that we see this [D.C.] bill, it doesn’t actually reform policing practices.”

Jean-Pierre also ticked off a list of provisions in D.C.’s bill, citing them as reasons Biden decided to support the House measure: “It reduces maximum penalties for offenses like murders and other homicides; armed home invasion burglaries; armed carjackings, as I mentioned; armed robberies; unlawful gun possession; and some sexual assault offenses.”

What Biden’s top spokeswoman described was a serious policy analysis conducted by a president that has been at the forefront of federal crime policy for nearly five decades. How quickly D.C. Council leaders appear to have forgotten about Biden’s role in the 1994 crime bill, for which he has drawn heat that it helped lead to over-incarceration of Black men.

In short, why would Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, and other panel members expect anything other than the president’s signature on a measure blocking this revised criminal code? Quite the miscalculation.

Unlike Biden, much of the media coverage and code proponents’ comments have been focused almost exclusively on emotional pleas to uphold home rule no matter what. That helped prevent a truly substantive, and vitally needed, debate about things like the long-term ramifications of lower sentences and crowded courts.

‘Govern themselves’

By announcing his opposition, Biden has handed the often-dysfunctional and often-ineffectual D.C. government, and vulnerable House and Senate Democrats, a gift.

The Council and Bowser, who collectively find new ways to avoid working together almost weekly, have a chance to assuage bipartisan concerns by sending Congress a stronger revised criminal code. Bowser has released a list of proposed revisions to the revision, which is at least a starting point. Mendelson claims he is withdrawing the code bill so the council and Bowser can do just that.

House and Senate Democrats have an opportunity to do some actual oversight by offering constructive suggestions and identifying red lines during the rewrite process. Some legal-focused congressional power players, however, will sit out the rewrite.

“I think they’ll most likely have that chance to try again,” Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said of district leaders. “I’m going to let them govern themselves.”

But home rule might not be what it has been for decades under this GOP-run House, with its distinct “Make America Great Again” proclivities. A failure to read that room would be another big miscalculation by D.C. officials.

If D.C. and congressional Democrats are unable to put aside hurt feelings and the expectation that an already busted norm will magically heal itself, that would be another miscalculation on an issue that resonates far beyond the Beltway bubble. District leaders have yet another chance to put some credence behind their statehood dreams. Can they actually — and finally — deliver?

Past performance, always an indicator, suggests without a mayor and Council capable of real negotiations, the dream will remain just that.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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