WASHINGTON – Congress' expected vote next week to overturn District of Columbia laws dealing with criminal justice and voting has created a political tempest in the nation’s capital — and reflects a contentious political dynamic that is playing out more broadly across the country:
Predominantly white legislative bodies are seeking to curb or usurp the authority of local governments in cities with large Black populations, particularly on issues related to public safety and elections.
Local activists decry it as the latest effort to undermine cities' ability to determine their own future.
U.S. senators — lawmakers from all 50 states — are expected to vote on a measure to reject a sweeping rewrite easing some penalties in the city's criminal code, approved unanimously last year by the District's 13-member council. The measure killing the local changes seems likely to pass despite the slim Democratic majority in the Senate, and President Joe Biden has indicated he will sign it.
It's a fresh chapter in a tortured relationship between Congress and Washington’s local elected leaders, who have long complained about congressional interference in their affairs. Similar inroads on local authority are happening elsewhere around the country, often intertwined with issues of race.
In Missouri, the state House of Representatives has approved a bill that would effectively give Republican Governor Mike Parson control of the St. Louis police department. Last month, the same body voted to strip power from St. Louis' elected prosecutor.
In Mississippi, the state House has approved a measure to create a new court district in part of the capital city of Jackson with judges who would be appointed rather than elected. It also would expand areas of the city patrolled by a state-run Capitol police force.
The Mississippi Senate has voted to create a regional board to take control of Jackson's troubled water system. Democratic state Sen. John Horhn calls that "a symbolic decapitation of Black elected leadership.”
Amir Badat, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, draws a connection between the “seemingly discrete and unconnected events" in Missouri, Mississippi and Washington, D.C.
“I do think that there’s an overall, overarching connection between what we’re seeing, and that is predominantly white governments trying to exert control and authority over Black communities and large Black jurisdictions in the states.” He also pointed to the recent push by Georgia's State Election Board to review elections in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.
“Here are all sorts of measures that we’ve seen in the elections context that really go to this, and now we’re seeing that pop up in other contexts, as well, like public safety," he said.
In Washington, the issue is strongly flavored by the District's deeply emotional quest for independence and statehood. Under terms of Washington's Home Rule authority, all District of Columbia laws are automatically reviewed by Congress.
Although it has been decades since Congress completely overturned a District law, members of Congress regularly use budget riders to limit or influence those laws. Such riders have been used to block the District from using the city budget to help women seeking abortions or to create a regulatory framework for cannabis sales despite a referendum approving legalization.
In a separate item, the Senate next week also is expected to vote on whether to overturn a District law that would grant non-citizens the right to vote in local elections, as they are allowed to do in about 15 municipalities around the country. The prospects for that measure are unclear.
District officials seem resigned to the crime bill's rejection.
One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, already has said he will vote to overturn the law. Another, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, is in the hospital. Hopes for presidential intervention were squashed this week when Biden stated that he would not use his veto if the measure reaches his desk.
“It's done,” said District Councilmember Charles Allen in a Friday radio interview. “This is just the beginning of what we’re going to see Republicans being able to do.”
Allen, the former head of the council’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, told WAMU's “The Politics Hour ” that Republican objections to the new criminal code are “not about substance” and mask a long-term plan to neuter the District of Columbia's political independence on a host of issues.
“The revised criminal code is tougher on crime than most of the state laws of the Republicans who are voting against it,” he said. “This is about nationalizing the politics of public safety.”
But the debate is complicated by the fact that Washington's own Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, opposes the new criminal code. Bowser vetoed the measure in January but was overridden by the council.
In vetoing the measure, Bowser said she opposed provisions such as a reduction in the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, robbery and other offenses.
“Anytime there’s a policy that reduces penalties, I think it sends the wrong message,” she said in January.
Bowser has said she prefers that Congress stay out of the District's affairs, but her veto is frequently cited by critics in Congress as proof that the criminal code revision was out of step with mainstream Democratic thought.
On Friday, appearing on the same radio program, Bowser said the council ignored her input and had essentially fumbled the political dynamics — presenting a controversial measure before a newly Republican-held House of Representatives that may have been looking for an opportunity to step in.
Bowser said it had been anticipated for months that Republicans would win control of the House in last November's midterm elections and that the council could have presented the revised criminal code last year, when Democrats were in control.
“Until we are the 51st state, we live with that indignity. And as infuriating as it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we’re smart and strategic about getting our laws enacted,” she said. “This is not a new issue. The District having to navigate muddy waters with the Congress and the White House isn’t new.”
For residents such as Josh Burch, founder of Neighbors for D.C. Statehood, opposition is not surprising. The city, he said, is seen as “too liberal, too urban, too Democratic and too Black. All those things play a role in the paternalistic attitude that Congress, especially Republicans, have."
But he holds Democrats accountable, too.
“Joe Biden did not have to do this. He could have vetoed it," Burch said.
He said overriding the revised criminal code won't make the city safer. Instead, he said Biden's decision was a matter of optics, so Democrats would not be painted as soft on crime ahead of next year's elections.
“I just know that as a lifelong District resident, when it comes to national politics I know we can trust no one," he said.
Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.