House Democrats furious as Biden sides with Republicans on DC crime bill

On paper, Biden’s decision to stand with Republicans and overrule the District of Columbia city council’s overhaul of its criminal code may turn out to be something much bigger than a local controversy. 

First, Biden managed to reach his decision after 81 percent of House Democrats had voted to keep the District’s criminal-code overhaul in place, and now, some of those House Democrats are seething and spitting hot fire over Biden’s unexpected stance. 

Secondly, Biden is telling progressives that the entire narrative on crime hasn’t changed, that “restorative justice” is a loser, and that ordinary voters are genuinely scared about rising crime rates and voting accordingly.

‘Amateur Hour. Heads Should Roll Over This’

How big a deal is it that President Biden is siding with House and Senate Republicans in overruling the District of Columbia city council’s overhaul of its criminal code? My initial thought when the news broke yesterday was that this was largely a local story that would quickly be overtaken by other events. But now I’m not so sure; the issue of crime and how to respond to it is exposing a deep fissure right down the middle of the Democratic Party.

In the account of The Hill, House Democrats are about as furious with Biden as they’ve been during his presidency — and it really does sound like Biden left them hanging out to dry:

Last month, 173 House Democrats voted along with what they thought was the White House’s stance that Biden would veto the resolution in an attempt to stand up for the District’s “home rule.”

Instead, Biden made the revelation to Senate Democrats during lunch on Thursday and, in the process, angered their colleagues across the Capitol complex.

“The White House f***** this up royally,” one House Democrat told The Hill via text message, noting the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the resolution and backing D.C., and that House Democratic leadership told lawmakers that Biden was prepared to veto the measure.

The declaration from the Office of Management and Budget called on Congress to “respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.”

“So a lot of us who are allies voted no in order to support what the White House wanted. And now we are being hung out to dry,” the lawmaker continued. “F****** AMATEUR HOUR. HEADS SHOULD ROLL OVER AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THIS.”

The House Democrat added multiple other lawmakers were “EXTREMELY pissed” about the situation.

Also note that apparently no one at the White House bothered to reach out to Washington mayor Muriel Bowser or members of the D.C. city council to give them a heads up before announcing the decision. Amateur hour, indeed.

In November 2022, the District of Columbia Council passed the “Revised Criminal Code Act,” a bill modernizing and overhauling the District’s criminal laws. As the city’s Criminal Code Revision Commission noted, “The district’s current criminal code has not undergone a comprehensive revision since its creation by Congress in 1901. . . . The current code includes outdated references to stables and steamboats, as well as outdated offenses that criminalize playing games of bandy or shindy.” (Bandy is apparently a form of hockey, and shindy is apparently a reference to “shinty,” a game played with sticks and a ball that is something akin to field hockey.)

The controversy arose when the Criminal Code Revision Commission included some significant reductions in certain criminal penalties. The new law eliminates life sentences and gets rid of mandatory minimums for every crime but first-degree murder. Under the old law, the maximum penalty for a previously convicted felon using a gun to commit more violence was 15 years; under the new law, it drops to four years.

In the last three years, Washington, D.C., has endured an exploding rate of carjackings, with 485 last year. You may recall that Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson was shot twice during a carjacking on August 28. Thankfully, Robinson survived and healed well enough to play during the season. The shooter was 14 years old at the time.

The new law indeed reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for carjackings, but also creates more classifications of the crime:

Under current law, unarmed carjacking has a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years and maximum sentence of 21. If armed, that jumps to 15 and 40, respectively. . . . Under the revised code, carjacking is divided into three gradations depending on severity, with the lowest penalties for an unarmed offense running from four to 18 years and the highest penalties for an armed offense ranging from 12 to 24 years.

The argument of the commission and the council is that reducing the mandatory minimum won’t necessarily reduce the time served, and that under current law, few felons serve the maximum time anyway. But Mayor Bowser argued that the new law would result in shorter sentences: “If the penalty is high and the usual sentences are somewhat lower, if you take it down, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the sentences go even lower? Yes. It does. And that’s what we know.”

The 13-member council passed the law revisions unanimously. At the beginning of the year Bowser vetoed the bill, but it only requires two-thirds of the council to override her veto, Bowser’s objection was mostly symbolic.

The notorious right-wingers at the Washington Post editorial board warned that, “The far-reaching rewrite of the criminal code will further tie the hands of police and prosecutors while overwhelming courts. With the capital city awash in handguns, the measure would also scale back penalties for convicted felons illegally carrying firearms, as well as for using them to commit crimes.”

Enter Congress. Under the Constitution, Congress has far-reaching powers over the District, thanks to the seat-of-government clause. In Democratic circles, the fact that a mostly white Congress can overrule and reverse the decisions of a city council in a mostly black city is considered an antiquated, undemocratic abomination. Democrats largely tout the importance of “home rule,” and allow the District of Columbia to make its own decisions. In fact, you’ve heard Democrats, including Joe Biden, argue that D.C. should become a state. As president, Biden declared less than two years ago that, “This taxation without representation and denial of self governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded.”

Unless, of course, two years before a Democratic president runs for reelection, the D.C. city council passes a law that Republicans could use to paint Democrats as soft on crime. Then, apparently, the president is happy to jump on board with a Republican-led effort to reject softer criminal penalties. President Biden’s position, as I summed up yesterday, is that he supports D.C. statehood, home rule, and the District of Columbia making its own decisions, right up until the moment the D.C. city council makes a decision that could hurt the Democratic Party’s image as a whole.

Joe Biden was shaped, in large part, by the policy fights of the 1980s and 1990s — the crime bill, the crack-cocaine epidemic, the Assault Weapons Ban. He remembers how Republicans painted Democrats as soft on crime and how Rudy Giuliani rode the issue of crime to become the first Republican mayor elected in New York City since John Lindsey in 1965.

The modern-day Biden can talk a good game about criminal-justice reform, but he’s still the guy who boasted in 1993 that, “Every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the state of Delaware: Joe Biden.” Biden’s positions on crime changed because his party’s consensus changed, not because his most deep-rooted instincts changed. He’s got the same reflexes as in 1994: “Lock the S.O.B.s up.” Biden’s the guy who led the charge for harsher sentences for possession of crack. (Although I’m sure Biden is willing to make some exceptions.)

This is the first time in about three decades that Congress has stepped in and overruled the District; local Democrats are stunned that it’s happening under a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.

But Biden chose to take this stand after 81 percent of House Democrats had gone out on a limb, arguing there was nothing in the D.C. criminal-code revision bad enough to require Congress to step in. The National Republican Congressional Committee is breaking out the party hats; NRCC national press secretary Will Reinert issued a statement: “The decriminalization of violent offenses is not a problem for 173 House Democrat extremists, but surprisingly too far for weak on crime Biden. The ad scripts write themselves.”

When you write about rising crime, you almost inevitably run into some progressive who insists that crime rates aren’t really rising, and that this is all media hype. And yet, New York City voters elected a former cop who pledged to crack down on crime, voters in San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Republican Lee Zeldin came within six percentage points of winning the New York governor’s race in a state the GOP usually loses by 20–30 points, and incumbent Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot got 17 percent in a crowded primary. Seventeen percent! More than four out of every five voters who showed up to vote were fed up with her approach, and the biggest issue in voters’ minds was crime. Major employers are fleeing Chicago, and they don’t make major, expensive, permanent decisions like that based on some overwrought local-news reports.

Residents of these places are responding to conditions on the ground — and correctly placing blame on local officials who are overwhelmingly Democrats. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously observed, and crime is a hyperlocal phenomenon. When voters perceive it to be out of control, those perceptions matter, because fear is a strong motivational force.

In response to these fears, too many Democratic candidates talk about crime as if blame should be placed on the law-abiding (who have not done enough for the criminal class) rather than on those breaking the law. To law-abiding people, the system as it operates today, with no cash bail, lenient sentencing, and fewer resources for police officers, seems overwhelmingly to favor the irresponsible at the expense of the safety of the responsible. And the Democratic elected officials who for decades have deflected moral responsibility away from the individuals who commit these acts and pointed instead to vague systemic forces that supposedly cause them might find that voters have finally lost patience with this approach.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post