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D.C. braces for barrage of Republican intervention in local governance

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) walks to the House chamber on the Hill in D.C. on Jan. 12. Comer has been among the Republicans vowing intervention in D.C. local government. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

It didn’t take long before Republicans, newly in control of the U.S. House, began eyeing intervention in D.C. local government.

Already, over the past week and a half, Republicans have vowed to block D.C. legislation allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. They have singled out D.C. in an abortion bill that would permanently prohibit the District and the federal government from using taxpayer money to subsidize the procedure. And on Tuesday, they took aim at their next target: D.C.’s once-in-a-century overhaul of its criminal code, which was vetoed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) before the council overrode her.

“We will use every remedy available to the House to prevent the D.C. Council’s pro-criminal bill from becoming law,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, which has oversight of the District, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

“We’ve only had one week, and they’re off to a flying start,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative, said at the end of the first legislative week.

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For the first time since the Trump era, D.C. is bracing for a continued barrage of House bills or investigations as Republicans flex their authority over the District, the latest chapter in a decades-long feud between the deep-blue city and red-state Congress members who have often sought to thwart liberal policies in the nation’s capital. Congress has the final say on D.C. laws and budgets thanks to a provision in the Constitution giving Congress authority over the District — authority Republicans have frequently and eagerly leveraged.

But House Republicans cannot do it alone. In the Senate, Democrats have a narrow majority, making it much less likely for stand-alone Republican bills targeting D.C. — or resolutions to block D.C. bills, called “disapproval resolutions” — to succeed. The Senate filibuster requires the support of 60 senators to advance a bill, a provision that D.C. statehood activists have fought to eradicate but that is now a friend to D.C. in this Congress.

Still, after two consecutive sessions of Congress in which the House passed legislation to make D.C. a state, Norton said that by contrast the next two years will be about trying to protect basic D.C. governance and home rule from Republican pursuits. One Republican, Andrew S. Clyde (Ga.), even threatened last year to seek to repeal D.C. home rule entirely — a long-shot effort that would be unlikely to succeed under a Democratic Senate and President Biden, but that illustrates the aggressive posture the right flank is likely to take toward the city.

“This is a completely defensive session for the District of Columbia,” Norton said.

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Comer and House Republicans on the Oversight Committee are expected to focus heavily on crime in their oversight of D.C.

In a statement, Comer blamed unspecified “radical left-wing policies” for what he described as a “crime crisis in the District of Columbia.” Violent crime in the District dropped 7 percent in 2022 compared with 2021, though was still high compared to pre-pandemic levels, and Bowser recently described violence involving and targeting youths as an “emergency” in the District.

“The D.C. Council wants to go even easier on criminals, which will turn D.C.’s crime crisis into a catastrophe,” Comer said, referencing the D.C. criminal code overhaul.

Local D.C. lawmakers say they are watching closely for potential congressional interference with the criminal code revisions, which the council unanimously approved in the fall.

The overhaul, among other things, eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences and restores the right to a jury trial in almost all misdemeanor cases, changes that would be phased in. Bowser has said she agrees with 95 percent of the code revisions but publicly objected to certain provisions, namely those reducing the maximum possible penalties for offenses such as burglaries, carjackings and robberies, which she and law enforcement officials argue will not make the city safer.

Supporters of the bill, however, point out that the sentencing changes bring the criminal code closer in line with penalties judges are already imposing, and give judges more discretion. The overhaul does not take effect until 2025.

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In an interview, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) defended Bowser’s authority to veto the legislation — but said some of her recent comments opposing the bill might be viewed as a green light for the Hill to intervene. He reiterated that point Tuesday on the dais while explaining his vote to override the mayor’s veto.

“It is irresponsible for the mayor to have characterized this as ‘This bill does not make us safer,’” Mendelson said. “That is irresponsible rhetoric, and it plays into folks like the Freedom Caucus in Congress who are going to use the mayor’s veto and her rhetoric against us when this bill goes up towards Congress, and that is a problem.”

Asked about Mendelson’s comments Wednesday, Bowser said that historically speaking, Congress has sought to intervene regardless of her position on certain bills.

“They’ve interfered with our ability to tax and regulate marijuana. They’ve interfered with our ability to protect a woman’s bodily autonomy. They’ve done all of those things, and [the council and I] were on the same page,” Bowser said.

She has promised legislation in the coming weeks that she says will address her concerns about the criminal code revisions.

Republicans have long intervened in D.C. affairs. Even though disapproval resolutions have only succeeded three times since D.C. gained local autonomy in the 1970s, Republicans have found other creative ways to block D.C. legislation in the form of budget riders. As Bowser alluded to, they have blocked D.C. from implementing a legal market for recreational marijuana sales, which has in turn created a gray zone in which people are allowed to possess marijuana but cannot legally buy it. They have succeeded in blocking D.C. from using local taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortion for low-income women — the budget rider that would be made permanent under the abortion bill from Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.).

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Even when Democrats controlled both chambers the past two years, they still could not get the riders removed — showing the difficulty of changing the status quo in D.C. By the same token, Republicans could run into the same challenges trying to add further restrictions considering such narrow majorities for each party in both chambers, said Bo Shuff, executive director of D.C. Vote.

Shuff said he is far more concerned about Republicans trying to slip new budget riders into a federal spending package than he is about stand-alone Republican bills targeting D.C.

“I think we’ll probably see more riders pop up. I have concern about everything coming down the pike, because we’ve seen over and over again that we’re not in a really strong bargaining position sometimes,” he said, thinking back to when President Barack Obama used D.C. as a bargaining chip to get a budget deal with a Republican House.

But the times have changed, Shuff argued. Since then, House Democrats have twice passed a bill to make D.C. the 51st state, and Democrats, including Obama and Biden, have broadly included D.C. statehood as part of a push to expand voting rights.

Even if some Democrats were to agree with Bowser in her opposition to the D.C. code overhaul, Shuff said that on principle, he expects they would not join Republicans in seeking to block the bill.

“There’s a difference between being opposed to the content of a bill and being opposed to people from other states making decisions for us,” Shuff said.

While congressional Republicans have yet to formally take action in opposition to the bill, Comer’s disapproval resolution seeking to block the D.C. noncitizens voting bill may instead be the first test of the strength of Republicans’ might over the District. That legislation, which the council passed in October and is under congressional review, permits all noncitizen residents in the District — including temporary residents on visas, undocumented immigrants and green-card holders — to vote in local but not federal elections starting in 2024 so long as they satisfy other voting requirements.

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“It should go without saying: Only Americans should have the power to influence local policy and guide their hard-earned taxpayer dollars to important initiatives,” Comer said when he filed the resolution. “All Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, should strongly oppose this radical effort by the D.C. Council and support this Joint Resolution.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) filed a companion disapproval resolution in the Senate, where Democratic control makes it less likely for the resolution to move forward.

Mendelson said that depending on the issue, he is prepared to go to the Hill and talk to federal lawmakers or even testify about the city’s legislation.

“In the past, when Republicans controlled the House and both chambers, city leaders stepped up and vigorously defended the District,” Mendelson said. “Whatever will help. And I’m sure the mayor will do the same.”

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