DC prepares for ‘tight surveillance’ after criminal code fiasco – KGET 17

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s signing of legislation reversing the District of Columbia’s criminal code review ended a public spat between Congress and local lawmakers. But the battles are just beginning.

House Republicans are already promising to increase congressional intervention in local DC affairs. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., pledged that his committee is “ready to exercise robust oversight of America’s capital.”

DC Council members sound like they fully believe those promises.

“I’m afraid we’re going to see more of this by the end of this Congress,” D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson said earlier this month ahead of a Senate vote to overturn city government and block new crime laws in the District. “Does this raise concerns that there will be other issues? Yes.”

The criminal code saga has left District lawmakers bitterly nursing their political wounds, harboring new resentment toward national Democrats, some of whom supported repeal of the criminal code, and poised to play defense against a House of Representatives controlled by activist Republicans for at least the next two years.

And that strong surveillance has already begun. Even before Biden signed the crime bill into law on Monday, the House Oversight Committee sent letters inviting Mendelsohn, D.C. Councilman Charles Allen and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Glenn Lee to testify at a March 29 hearing. The subject of that hearing, according to the letter, is the vague “overall oversight of the District of Columbia, including crime, safety and city management.”

Other House Republicans have already identified areas of interest to target. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia has introduced a resolution to block a separate D.C. law — a police accountability measure known as the Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Act.

Most aspects of that law were passed by the D.C. Council on an emergency basis in 2020, amid protests against police brutality after the police killing of George Floyd; it became permanent in December 2022. It bans the use of chokeholds by police officers, makes police disciplinary records more accessible to the public, weakens the bargaining power of the police union and limits the use of tear gas to disperse protesters.

“Now that Congress has effectively exercised its constitutional authority to repeal the dangerous D.C. Council Revised Penal Code Act, we must now move swiftly to block this anti-police measure to ensure our nation’s capital is safe for all Americans,” said Clyde in the statement.

Under Washington’s mandate, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee essentially vets all new D.C. laws and often amends or limits them through budget beneficiaries. But the amendment to the criminal code is the first law that has been completely overturned since 1991.

Clyde, a long-time enemy of DC loyalists, has publicly stated that his ultimate goal is to completely abolish Washington’s Home Rule authority. That sentiment, once far from a fringe position, has moved closer to being the main topic of Republican debate. Former President Donald Trump said earlier this month that “the federal government should take over the control and management of Washington, DC.”

In the meantime, member of the Supervisory Board, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., targeted the D.C. jail for control of Congress. Greene requested access to the prison to visit about two dozen detainees from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. She is also asking for a full review of prison conditions.

Other aspects of the D.C. law remain ripe targets for Republican activists, such as the District’s strict gun control laws and the decision to essentially decriminalize most psychedelics — a move D.C. voters approved in a referendum.

This congressional oversight assault was widely predicted when Republicans regained control of the House after last year’s midterm elections. But most local politicians and activists hoped they could count on Democratic control of both the Senate and the White House as a shield. Those hopes quickly melted away in a storm of political dynamics that represented a humiliating defeat for the D.C. Council and Washington’s larger hopes of ever achieving statehood.

House Republicans have succeeded in putting Biden and Senate Democrats in a political bind over the criminal code overhaul. Defending DC’s right to self-governance would open them up to accusations of being soft on criminals at a time of rising crime both in the capital and across the US

Republicans pointed to the fact that it reduced maximum sentences for crimes like carjacking, while D.C. Council members argued that the new sentences were much higher than sentencing guidelines in several states across the country and far above the vast majority of sentences handed down by judges.

Ultimately, Biden — despite recent tweets in support of D.C. statehood — signaled before the Senate vote that he would not veto the repeal of the criminal bill, and 33 Democratic senators voted to override it. State activists saw the moves as a betrayal they say exposed a void in national Democratic support for D.C. statehood.

As a Senate vote loomed earlier this month, Mendelsohn tried to avoid a public defeat by withdrawing the changes to the criminal code. But the move did not stop the Senate vote or spare Biden a politically charged decision on whether to support congressional action.

The House also passed another bill that would repeal a D.C. law giving noncitizens the right to vote in local elections. But it was never seriously debated or voted on in the Senate.

For now, the D.C. Council believes the city’s criminal code is dangerously outdated and in desperate need of reform. But after seeing the original bill turn into a national political issue, there doesn’t seem to be enough appetite to try again in the short term.

Mendelsohn said changing the elements that drew criticism would simply lead to other objections from a Republican House he said was openly looking for a fight.

“I don’t plan to install a hotline to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and call them every week and ask them for permission to move forward,” he said.

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