- The Washington Times
Monday, January 23, 2023

Powerful Republicans plan to use “every remedy available” to block a D.C. crime overhaul that would reduce maximum sentences for gun offenses, carjackings and robberies, marking another skirmish in a long-running war over “home rule.”

The Republican pledge coincides with rising crime concerns in the nation’s capital and is another sign that the new House majority will flex its constitutional right to oversee the District. That power has already upended abortion and marijuana programs in the city and fueled its pursuit of statehood.

Earlier this month, Republicans filed a resolution to block a D.C. measure allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections.

“All Americans should feel safe in their capital city, but radical left-wing policies have created a crime crisis in the District of Columbia,” said House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, Kentucky Republican.

“As the committee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, we will conduct oversight of the disastrous policies that have allowed crime to run rampant in our nation’s capital city. We will use every remedy available to the House to prevent the D.C. Council’s pro-criminal bill from becoming law,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, Georgia Republican, will draft a disapproval resolution of the D.C. crime overhaul. His office said it would be filed in the coming weeks, but the process can’t start until the local bill is formally transmitted to Congress.

“By advancing this bill, the D.C. Council is recklessly emboldening criminals and abandoning the safety of residents and visitors at a time when crime continues to soar in our nation’s capital,” Mr. Clyde said. “Congress must forcefully condemn this insanity, which is why I plan to introduce a resolution of disapproval to block this dangerous, illogical and irresponsible measure.”

The unfolding spat is particularly fraught because D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democratic champion of D.C. autonomy, tried to veto the bill over fears that it weakens criminal penalties while the city tries to restore public safety.

The bill, which phases in changes starting in 2025, gets rid of most mandatory minimum sentences and reduces maximum penalties for gun offenses and major crimes. It also allows jury trials for misdemeanors, a change that could overwhelm the courts.

The council overrode the mayor’s veto last week, setting up a clash with Capitol Hill Republicans.

A 1973 law expanded self-rule in the nation’s capital, allowing D.C. residents to elect a mayor and council with legislative powers.

Still, D.C. laws have to be submitted to Congress and can be vetoed by resolutions of disapproval that pass both chambers and are signed by the president during a mandatory review period.

Although disapproval resolutions rarely succeed, Republicans have leveraged budget negotiations on critical bills to thwart D.C. policies.

President Obama traded away the District’s ability to use local funds for abortions more than a decade ago, and Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, responded to a D.C. voter initiative that legalized marijuana in 2015 with a legislative rider that barred the taxing or regulating of sales of the drug.

City officials say Republicans treat the District as a political fiefdom even though it is home to over 700,000 people — more than Vermont or Wyoming. They want the District to gain statehood so it can take off federal shackles, or at least get a seat at the table through voting representation in Congress.

The push for political autonomy is popular locally, though some city residents question the timing and content of the crime overhaul.

Gun crimes dominate local headlines, and carjackings in the city rose for a fifth straight year in 2022. The Metropolitan Police Department has recorded 14 homicides already this year, up from 12 at this point in 2022.

A recent Nextdoor posting urged residents to lobby against the bill. Some called it “stupid” and “irresponsible.”

Ms. Bowser said criminal justice reform is important but she would like to have had more community input. She objected in particular to parts of the bill that substantially reduce maximum penalties for carjackings, robberies and home invasions, and a section that lowers the maximum penalty for illegal gun possession from 15 years to four for those who have been convicted of violent crimes.

“A complete overhaul of our city’s criminal code is a once-in-a-century opportunity. I believe it is more important to get this opportunity right than to add policies and weaken penalties into what should be a bill that makes D.C. safer,” she told the council chairman in her veto letter.

Some members of the D.C. Council worry that Ms. Bowser’s characterization will fuel Congress’ push to kill the legislation.

“It is irresponsible for the mayor to have characterized this as ‘This bill does not make us safer,’” council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said at the Jan. 16 meeting to override the veto. “That is irresponsible rhetoric, and it plays into folks like the Freedom Caucus in Congress, who are going to use the mayor’s veto and her rhetoric against us when this bill goes up towards Congress.”

Mr. Mendelson’s office said the chairman had not heard directly from Republican lawmakers but pointed to warnings from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who serves as the city’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Mrs. Norton’s office said it had not been given a heads-up about a disapproval resolution, but Republicans have 60 legislative days to object to criminal laws enacted by the District.

The city is also fighting congressional Republicans on another front.

Mr. Comer filed a disapproval resolution against a D.C. plan to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. He said it was “irresponsible and will only exacerbate the ongoing border crisis, subvert the voices of American citizens, and open the door for foreign adversaries to peddle influence in our nation’s capital.”

Mrs. Norton pledged this month to defeat the measure and a companion resolution from Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, that would require a simple majority to pass in the Senate.

The Senate is led by Democrats and President Biden would not sign off on the measure, so Republicans would need to find other ways to trip up D.C. plans.

“Don’t be surprised to see riders with the same objectives, and others, attached to larger bills coming out of the House,” said Chuck Thies, a veteran political consultant and longtime participant in D.C. politics. “Republicans effectively used this strategy in the past to limit District autonomy on medical marijuana, abortion and other matters.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has pledged a more free-wheeling amendment process. Republicans looking to thwart the D.C. agenda may find opportunities on must-pass legislation that Democrats would swallow hard and accept.

That was what happened in 2011. Facing tough budget negotiations, Mr. Obama relented to a Republican request to block the District from using local funds to subsidize abortions for poor women.

“John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it,” Mr. Obama was quoted as telling House Speaker John A. Boehner.

House Republicans will have to decide how much time and energy to spend on combating liberal ideas out of the District. For now, the crime issue and local overhaul put the mayor in a tough spot.

Ms. Bowser’s office did not respond to a request for comment on how it would like the process to unfold, though the mayor told The Washington Post last week that Congress had intervened in D.C. affairs on issues such as marijuana and abortion even when she and the council were “on the same page.”

Despite Ms. Bowser’s desire for changes in the crime overhaul, observers say there is no way she will break from the leave-us-alone stance that is an article of faith in the city.

“The mayor will unwaveringly object to congressional meddling. Period,” Mr. Thies said. “Might she privately be pleased if House Republicans fulfill her objective? Sure. But publicly, the message to Congress is: ‘Keep your hands off D.C. We have the right to make our own mistakes and rectify them or suffer the consequences just like all other Americans.’”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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