Biden won’t veto push to overturn law in US capital. Here’s why

Washington, DC – United States President Joe Biden has angered progressives by pledging not to block a congressional measure that would overturn a criminal justice reform law in Washington, DC.

Biden’s decision, announced on Thursday, sparked debate about two separate topics: Washington’s right to self-rule and the rise of public safety as a pivotal issue in current US politics.

Earlier this year, Washington’s city council passed a legal reform bill that reduces some sentences and removes mandatory minimums for certain offences, measures that supporters say aim to modernise the city’s penal code.

But since Washington is the seat of the federal government, the US Congress has the authority to block local laws in the Democratic-led district. It quickly stepped in, with Republicans invoking the law to slam Democrats as “soft on crime”.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill to annul the DC law last month, with 31 mostly conservative Democrats joining Republicans to approve the measure. The Senate is set to take up and likely pass the legislation next week, with some Democrats again expected to join Republicans in their effort.

The White House initially voiced opposition to Congress’s efforts to overturn the local law in DC, calling on legislators to “respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs”.

But Biden made an about-face this week, saying he would not veto the Republican-led bill.

“I support DC Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes DC Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “If the Senate votes to overturn what DC Council did — I’ll sign it.”

DC statehood yard sign. It is small and white, pinned into the grass. There are three pink stars at the top and below the words: STATEHOOD, PEOPLE OF DC
A sign calls for Washington, DC, statehood in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of the city [Al Jazeera]

Rise in crime

Washington, like several other big cities across the country, has witnessed a stark rise in violent crime in recent years, with murders and car thefts increasing since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

For example, the district saw 203 homicides in 2022, a slight decrease from the previous year but well above levels in 2019, when 166 people were killed in the city.

Carjacking has also been an issue for DC residents. There have been 1,182 motor vehicle thefts this year, a 111 percent increase from the same time in 2022, according to police data.

But the supporters of the DC criminal justice reform measure, dubbed the Revised Criminal Code Act, argue the law merely updates an outdated system that had not been overhauled in more than 100 years.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser blocked the law, but the city council overrode her veto in a 12-1 vote in January.

The local bill would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many offences while also capping their maximum sentences. Civil rights advocates have long argued that mandatory minimums contribute to the overcrowding of prisons and exacerbate the racial bias in the US justice system.

Still, Republicans seized on the DC law, which would take effect in 2025, to highlight their support for tougher criminal penalties.

“The modern Democratic Party and its coalitions have decided it’s more important to have compassion for serial violent felons than for innocent citizens who just want to live their lives,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week.

Republicans have been centring public safety in their pitch to voters, often accusing Democrats of relaxing criminal penalties and not being supportive enough of law enforcement agencies.

In local elections in Chicago, San Francisco and New York over the past two years, voters have favoured politicians perceived as tough on crime.

Progressives say the answer to public safety concerns is more investments in communities, youth programmes and education, not tougher prison sentences, pointing to the fact that conservative states have also seen a rise in crime.

DC autonomy

Beyond the substance of the DC law, Biden’s move has irked many supporters of self-rule in Washington, home to more than 700,000 residents, most of whom are people of colour. The city is the only place in the US with no congressional representation.

Seats in the US Senate and House of Representatives are assigned to states. But the country’s founders declined to make DC a state, out of fear that the district would become too powerful.

Washington has a mayor and city council that run its municipal affairs, but Congress has the power to overturn local laws in the district.

Signs bemoaning “taxation without representation” and calling for statehood are not an uncommon sight throughout the city. Washington has a higher population than the states of Wyoming and Vermont. But recent efforts to give the district statehood have met Republican opposition.

The city is deeply liberal. Biden won more than 93 percent of the votes in DC against his predecessor Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. DC statehood would all but certainly translate into two more Senate seats and one House member for Democrats.

In 2020 and 2021, the House voted to make DC the 51st US state, but the push was halted in the Senate, where a legislative procedure known as the filibuster requires 60 votes for major legislation to pass in the 100-member chamber.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting delegate in Congress, voiced disappointment in Biden’s position on Thursday.

“Today has been a sad day for DC home rule and DC residents’ right to self-governance, which President Biden himself highlighted in his administration’s Statement of Administration Policy issued mere weeks ago,” Norton said in a statement.

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