In what may turn out to be a protracted dispute with the District of Columbia over local self-government in the nation’s capital, the Republican-led House has fired the first shot.
Both a new law that would allow non-citizens to cast ballots in municipal elections and a comprehensive revision of the criminal code that the City Council passed last year was defeated by the House on Thursday in back-to-back votes.
The Constitution specifies that the district is subject to Congressional scrutiny. And while it has been more than three decades since Congress directly overturned a D.C. law, it has routinely used other strategies like budget riders to change legislation on topics like funding for abortions and the legalization of marijuana.
The Criminal Code Rewrite, which among other things, reduced the maximum punishments for Burglary, Carjacking, and Robbery, was overturned by the House by a vote of 250-173. A poll of 260 to 173 against the voting rights measure was also taken.
Since both would need to be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate and signed by President Joe Biden, the actions might only be somewhat symbolic.
The criminal code revision and the voting legislation received a sizable amount of Democratic support, with 31 and 42 Democrats voting to repeal them. Although Biden has openly opposed both bills, he hasn’t said he would veto them.
The votes on Thursday mark a turning point in the District’s tumultuous relationship with the federal government and usher in a new, openly confrontational era.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is in an odd political position due to the discussion. In January, Bowser vetoed the city’s criminal code revision because he believed the reduced maximum penalties sent “the wrong message” about crime prevention.
Bowser also opposed a proposal to allow jury trials in most misdemeanor cases because he believed the sudden increase in jury trials would overwhelm the local justice system. The D.C. Council swiftly overrode her veto with a 12-1 vote.
During a multi-year local rise in violent crime, Republican lawmakers criticized the D.C. government for being lax on criminals. To support their claims, some Republican politicians have used Bowser’s opposition.
However, Bowser has made it clear that she does not want Congress to become involved in the matter, and she has also used congressional concern to support her objections.
“We don’t want any interference on our local laws,” she said last week. “Quite frankly, members of Congress have expressed similar concerns. There’s a lot of people that don’t agree with what the council did.”
The D.C. Council, according to New York Rep. Anthony Esposito, a former police officer, “empowers criminals at the expense of the public,” and the new criminal code will “effectively prevent the local justice system from keeping criminals off of our streets, all while D.C. grapples with a crime wave,” he claimed.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting representative for Washington, D.C., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, played defense for most of the morning House discussion. According to Norton, the new required minimum sentences would still be more severe than those imposed for the same offenses in other US states.
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Raskin charged House Republicans with disregarding their stated commitment to states’ rights by pursuing a long-standing grudge against the District of Columbia administration.
“That is the beauty of the federal system, which I thought our colleagues supported,” Raskin said. “They’re not interested in scrutinizing the actual criminal justice policy. They want to kick the people of Washington, D.C., around. They want to lord it over them.”
After the vote, Norton issued a statement in which she said, “Residents of D.C., the majority of whom are Black and Brown, are deserving of and capable of self-government. Congress does indeed have total authority over Washington, D.C., but “might makes right.”
The comprehensive overhaul of D.C.’s criminal code has been years in the making; it was approved by the 13-member D.C. Council last year and had the support of key players, including Brian Schwalb, the city’s attorney general.
“Today’s move to overturn our laws is not about making the District safer or more just,” Schwalb said in a post-vote statement. “Today’s actions are political grandstanding and highlight the urgent need for D.C. statehood.”
Giving non-citizens, even those here illegally, the ability to vote in local elections is not a novel idea. Similar laws have been approved in other states, including Takoma Park, Maryland, Raskin’s home district, and a liberal stronghold in the suburbs of Washington.
However, several Republican critics asserted that D.C.’s distinctiveness, with its large number of foreign embassies, made it particularly unacceptable.
Out of a total population of under 700,000 people, official estimates place the number of noncitizen residents of D.C. at about 50,000.
According to Rep. Nicholas Langworthy, R-N.Y., “For years, Democrats in Washington have criticized potential foreign influence in our electoral process, but D.C.’s new law may enable foreign agents from China, Russia, and other adversaries to participate in local elections held in this country’s capital city.”
In a Wednesday night discussion about the voting law, Norton called congressional intervention “paternalistic” and claimed it went against fundamental democratic principles of local self-governance.
“There is only one question before this House,” Norton said, “The question is: ‘Do you believe in democracy?’ “
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