Mar 8, 2023 - Politics & Policy

What's in the crime law fueling showdown between D.C. leaders and Congress

51-star flags along Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, D.C. on March 20, 2021. Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The D.C. crime law is expected to reach the Senate for a vote Wednesday amid tensions between Congress and local D.C. leaders over a measure that has earned national attention and added gravitas to the ongoing political debate over crime.

The big picture: The legislation was thrown into the national spotlight after President Biden announced he would sign a Republican-led resolution to block changes to D.C.'s local criminal code.

  • Biden's indication that he will not veto the GOP-led measure paves the way for Congress to overturn a D.C. law for the first time in more than three decades.

What's in the revised D.C. criminal code

  • The D.C. Council last year unanimously approved an overhaul of the city's criminal code, the first time the code underwent comprehensive revisions in more than a century.
  • Among the changes, the bill would eliminate nearly all mandatory minimum sentences, reduce the maximum penalties for some crimes including robberies and carjackings and expand the right to a jury trial for most misdemeanor offenses.
  • The D.C. Council overrode a veto of the measure by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), who said: "I believe it’s more important to get this opportunity right than to add policies & weaken penalties into what should be a bill that makes D.C. safer."
  • Critics of the criminal code said that it is too lenient on crime because it reduces penalties for some offenses.
  • Proponents of the code, like Patrice Sulton, a criminal and civil defense attorney who helped draft the recommendations, say it fixes an outdated code that had "gaps in the law."
  • Against the backdrop of the debate over the criminal code is rising gun violence in the nation's capital.

How we got here

  • House Republicans and some Democrats last month passed a resolution to nullify the revised D.C. criminal code.
  • Biden in a surprise announcement last week said that he would support the GOP-led resolution to block the changes to the city's criminal code. The move was a surprise to many, as the White House previously issued statements of opposition to overturning the criminal code reform.
  • "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," Biden tweeted.
  • "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it."
  • The D.C. Council scrambled to keep the measure alive after Biden's about-face.
  • D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson this week sent a letter seeking to withdraw the bill, but Senate leadership aides told Axios' Cuneyt Dil and Andrew Solender that the chamber would likely proceed with the vote.

Why is Congress involved in local legislation?

  • The short answer is, well, because it's D.C.
  • Because D.C. isn't a state, Congress has full oversight over the city's affairs. The Constitution allows Congress to review D.C. legislation before it can become law and "modify or even overturn such legislation," per a government website that advocates for D.C. statehood.
  • That's why so many D.C. lawmakers were snubbed by Biden's surprise announcement. They view it as a major setback in the city's fight for statehood and self-governance.

What's next

  • The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on the GOP-led resolution.
  • Numerous Democrats, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Patty Murray (Wa.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), have already signaled that they will back the measure.
  • Mendelson said this week that city lawmakers will go back to the drawing board on the reforms if the measure fails.
  • Bowser is pushing for revisions to the original bill that restore current penalties for violent crimes like carjackings and robberies and remove the expansion of jury trials.
  • Republicans also plan to use Democratic infighting over the crime law to bash the party on crime during the 2024 election.

Go deeper... Scoop: GOP ads hit vulnerable Dems over D.C. crime law

Axios' Cuneyt Dil and Andrew Solender contributed reporting.

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