WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Thursday he is willing to sign a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new District of Columbia laws that would overhaul how the nation’s capital prosecutes and punishes crime.
In doing so, the president would be allowing Congress to nullify the city’s laws for the first time in more than three decades. Biden’s willingness to do so, despite earlier opposition from his White House, is linked to growing concern over rising crime both in the nation’s capital and across the U.S. and comes amid relentless criticism from Republicans.
“One thing the president believes in is making sure that the streets in America and communities across the country are safe,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “That includes D.C.”
The district lacks the same rights that states have to make and amend laws. While Congress has allowed the city’s residents some powers of “home rule,” it has retained veto powers over district government actions. District residents also do not have voting members of Congress.
City officials have spent nearly two decades trying to redo Washington’s criminal laws, including redefining crimes, changing criminal justice policies and reworking how sentences should be handed down after convictions. The overhaul was approved late last year by the D.C. Council. It overrode a veto by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had concerns over some of the changes.
Then the Republican-controlled House decided to wade into the matter, claiming the district’s changes would contribute to already-rising crime in Washington — the number of murders in 2021 was the highest in nearly 20 years — and make it easier for some criminals to get out of prison or evade punishment altogether.
The resolution passed the House with some Democratic support and appears poised to clear the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan basis as well, perhaps as early as next week. After Biden privately told senators that he’d sign the measure overriding the changes, some Democratic senators said they’d support the measure too.
Biden later tweeted that while he supported statehood for D.C., “I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”
He added, “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
The decision comes weeks before Biden is set to announce his reelection campaign and as he works to formulate his message to voters and fend off expected GOP attacks on his record.
The GOP effort is part of a growing political backlash against Democratic-led criminal justice changes that picked up pace after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid this week for reelection as some of her Democratic challengers argued that the nation’s third-largest city needed tough-on-crime policies. Some Republicans blame rising crime on reforms, but the reality is more complicated.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell cited crimes in his home state of Kentucky as he tried to blame Biden and Democrats for rising crime, including an incident two days ago when masked thieves stormed an auto showroom and drove off with a half-dozen cars.
“Getting murderers off our streets and foreign poison out of our neighborhoods are among the most basic governing responsibilities you can possibly think of,” McConnell added, a reference to the country’s fentanyl crisis. “Evidently the Biden administration does not agree or just cannot deliver.”
Washington’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901. Criminal justice experts have said it is outdated, confusing and not in touch with how crimes are punished today. In the nation’s capital, like most places in the United States, Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal laws.
The revisions passed the D.C. Council late last year would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and expand jury trials for lower-level charges. The changes also would reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.
House Republicans voted 250-173 to overturn the rewrite of the criminal code.
They have also acted to overturn a new D.C. law that would allow noncitizens the right to vote. Biden is also expected to let that override go through.
In allowing such overrides, Democrats would be abandoning a commitment to oppose the unusual rules governing the district that allow Congress to step in. The acquiescence comes despite Democrats’ longtime push to grant statehood to the nation’s capital. Some grappled with that Thursday.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said: “On the one hand, I really support D.C. statehood, I support D.C. home rule. On the other hand, the mayor vetoed the bill saying that it would not provide enough safety … so I am torn.”
Jean-Pierre repeatedly sidestepped questions about how Biden’s decision to substitute his own judgment and that of Congress for the will of the city’s elected representatives squares with his past support for self-government in the district.
“The decision he’s making, he’s making for the people of D.C.,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus vowed to work swiftly to try to influence the Senate against the bill before next week’s expected vote.
“We need to make sure the Senate understands the full effect of taking away local decision-making, particularly for the District of Columbia that does not have representation in that manner,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “What the Senate does will matter.”
The crime legislation, which would take effect in 2025, created some friction within the district government. In January, Mayor Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrode her veto.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the district, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes would “lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.”
But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate in the House, said the criminal law overhaul was “extraordinarily important” and the result of years of work by lawmakers, criminal justice experts and nonprofits that deal with offenders.
“Any effort to overturn the District of Columbia’s democratically enacted laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern — a right that almost every other American has,” said D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb.
While it has been more than three decades since Congress outright nullified a D.C. law, Congress has frequently used alternative methods to alter local laws on issues from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.