The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House votes to block D.C. bills on noncitizen voting, criminal code

D.C. placed 51-star flags along Pennsylvania Avenue in 2021 in advance of a statehood hearing by a congressional committee. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
12 min

The Republican-controlled U.S. House flexed its power over D.C. on Thursday in voting to block a pair of local bills, with support from dozens of Democrats as well — the curtain-raiser this session in a long history of congressional interference in the city’s local governance.

The House voted in favor of resolutions disapproving of the two D.C. bills: one that would allow noncitizens to vote in local D.C. elections, and another marking a major revision of the city’s criminal code, which has not been comprehensively updated since 1901. While the House Democratic whip urged Democrats to vote against both resolutions, 42 Democrats joined Republicans to reject the legislation allowing noncitizen voting and 31 joined Republicans to reject D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022. The bills now head to the Senate, where Democrats have just a narrow majority.

“We have two acts from the Washington, D.C., council that will dilute the vote of American citizens and endanger city residents and businesses,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said of the D.C. bills on the floor Thursday, arguing that it was Congress’s “responsibility” to intervene.

The votes deal a blow to local officials who implored members of Congress to stay out of the city’s affairs, although it is exactly the type of interference they had been bracing for after the GOP took control of the House this year. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District’s nonvoting representative, said there is “never justification for Congress nullifying legislation enacted by the District.”

“I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes D.C. residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, are unworthy or uncapable of governing themselves,” she said on the floor.

The broad bipartisan nature of both votes marks somewhat of a departure for House Democrats, who in recent years have shown unity in support for D.C. statehood. And the large number of Democratic defections signals that D.C. may not find as robust support from congressional Democrats against Republican incursion in its affairs as it hoped.

Assessing the damage, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) acknowledged that as hard as local officials tried to argue that Congress should respect D.C. home rule, that case didn’t appear to cut it for politically vulnerable Democrats. “I think the statehood argument was not going to get through to those who are afraid they could lose their next election for being soft on crime,” he said.

Though he strongly disagreed that the criminal code overhaul in any way allowed leniency for accused criminals, Mendelson said it was clear to him that Republicans succeeded in creating that perception, making it more difficult for some Democrats to vote against the disapproval resolution.

One Democrat who joined Republicans had been a victim of a crime in D.C. that very morning.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) was assaulted in an elevator in her Washington apartment building Thursday morning, leading her to throw hot coffee on her assailant to defend herself, before heading to the Capitol to cast her votes. (Her office told The Washington Post that she had decided to vote in favor of the disapproval resolutions before the incident.)

“Unfortunately, when a congresswoman gets mugged in an elevator this morning, it’s hard to vote against demands to be tough on crime,” Mendelson acknowledged.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had again urged Congress to stay out of the city’s affairs in an unrelated news conference before the votes took place.

Asked whether she was concerned about the bipartisan nature of the vote, Bowser later said in a statement to The Washington Post on Friday that “members of Congress — regardless of party — should not be meddling in DC’s local matters.”

“As Senators now advance a restrictive measure on DC, it is worth noting that we have not a single senator to represent the 700,000 tax-paying Americans who live in Washington, DC,” she wrote. “So unless they are taking up a bill for DC Statehood, we demand they leave us alone.”

In a statement, D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb (D) said he doubted the efforts to block the legislation were “about making the District safer or more just” but that instead it was all about “political grandstanding.”

“District residents are on notice that lawmakers seek to undermine our democratic process to gain political favor and are substituting uninformed politics for the views of those impacted most, D.C. residents,” he said.

Congress has oversight of D.C. and the final say on its laws and budget thanks to a provision in the Constitution. Thursday marks the first time since 2015 that a disapproval resolution targeting D.C. legislation has made it to the House floor. It’s been roughly three decades since Congress has successfully used a disapproval resolution to overturn D.C. legislation — though the large number of House Democrats supporting both on Thursday probably doesn’t bode well for D.C. in the Senate.

How Congress can thwart bills passed by D.C.'s government

Congressional staffers expect that neither disapproval resolution will be subject to the Senate filibuster and will only need to pass with a simple majority. The Senate could also fast-track the criminal code disapproval resolution: Procedural rules for a disapproval resolution targeting the D.C. criminal code allow any single member of the Senate to call to bring it to the floor for a vote, rather than going through committee under normal procedures. The disapproval resolutions must also receive approval from the president.

The Biden administration said in a statement earlier this week that it opposes both resolutions, describing them as “clear examples of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood.” The statement, however, did not say whether Biden would veto the resolutions. The White House did not respond to requests for comment seeking clarity on the matter.

The D.C. Council passed legislation allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections in October, arguing that, regardless of immigration status, all D.C. residents have a vested interest in schools, public safety and other important local issues.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee who sponsored the disapproval resolution, said foreign nationals — who may work on behalf of foreign governments — or undocumented immigrants should not get a say in local elections. Defending D.C., House Democrats such as Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.) and other local officials have noted that various jurisdictions across the country allow noncitizens to vote in local elections and that D.C. should get to decide its own local voting laws.

Still, even among Democrats supporting D.C. statehood, noncitizen voting went too far. Within the local congressional delegations of Virginia and Maryland — typically the most allied with D.C. — Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) joined Republican colleagues to back the disapproval resolution rejecting the noncitizen voting bill, though she opposed the other regarding D.C.’s criminal code. She said in a statement to The Post that while she acknowledged Republicans were pulling “stunts” to target D.C., she could not allow herself to stand with a bill expanding voting to noncitizens in the capital.

“These stunts demonstrate that House GOP leadership is neither interested in addressing the actual challenges faced by the American people nor interested in learning more about the city in which they work,” Spanberger said. “Even so, I could not vote to extend a fundamental right of U.S. citizenship — the right to vote — to non-U.S. citizens.”

The D.C. Council last fall unanimously passed a once-in-a-century overhaul of its criminal code, the product of 16 years of collaboration among prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice experts to painstakingly revise the city’s outdated — and often clunky and unclear — laws covering criminal offenses, sentencing and procedure. But while Bowser said she agreed with 95 percent of the changes, she vetoed the legislation over concerns with several provisions she contended would not make the city safer and would overburden the courts. The council overrode her veto last month.

Since then, Bowser has walked a delicate line in seeking to separate her opposition to certain provisions in the criminal code overhaul from her opposition to Congress meddling in the city’s affairs in general. She has argued that the reduction of maximum penalties for crimes such as carjacking, robbery and burglary send the wrong message while the city is seeking to reduce violent crime. She has also opposed provisions to expand the right to a jury trial for almost all misdemeanor defendants and a drastic expansion of resentencing opportunities for incarcerated residents.

She did not join the council, Mendelson or Schwalb in writing or in signing letters to Congress directly petitioning federal lawmakers to reject the resolutions, but she said at recent news conferences that Congress needs to be “staying out of the District’s affairs” and allow the city to settle any disagreements over the legislation locally. She proposed several amendments to the legislation this week that she said address her concerns.

Nevertheless, Republicans sought to use her veto to ramp up support for blocking the legislation.

“There may not be much Mayor Bowser and I have agreed upon in the past, but today we are on the same page,” Comer said during a hearing Monday.

Comer said the major criminal code revisions, namely the elimination of most mandatory minimum sentences and the reduction of maximum penalties for certain crimes, will “further embolden criminals to run rampant throughout the District of Columbia.” He also cited opposition from the D.C. Police Union, which wrote a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass the disapproval resolution. And McCarthy said on the floor that since the D.C. Council sought to “defund the police” in 2020, “the city government has done nothing but pass laws that have clearly made the city less safe.”

“Ignoring the high rates of criminality in the District and doubling down on leniency for society’s violent criminals is a dereliction of duty,” Comer said Monday. “If the D.C. Council wants to continue to skirt its responsibility to the people, they will have to answer to this Congress.”

But while congressional debate has largely sought to distill the 400-page legislation into several talking points, the major revisions are far more intricate.

The bill would, among many things, restore the right to a jury trial for almost all misdemeanor defendants; more clearly define offenses and modernize century-old language in the code; eliminate most mandatory minimums to allow judges more sentencing discretion; and, indeed, reduce maximum penalties for certain offenses.

Architects of the revised code say those sentencing changes bring penalties not only more in line with the sentences D.C. judges are handing down but also more in line with penalties in various states. As council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) pointed out, for example, at least seven states have a lower maximum penalty for armed carjacking than the new maximum under D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act, which would be 24 years.

But merely focusing on maximum penalties is “misleading,” said Jinwoo Park, chairman of the D.C. Criminal Code Reform Commission, because that lens ignores the many other ways prosecutors and judges can increase penalties with new tools provided in the revised code.

The code revisions also add new penalty enhancements for serious crimes, such as for using a firearm, harming a child in the commission of a crime or committing a new offense while out on bond. The revisions increase maximum penalties for other crimes such as attempted murder and certain sexual abuse offenses, and they also restructure the code to add new gradations of severity for serious offenses. Judges can sentence people for multiple offenses and have the discretion to stack penalties on top of each other to increase ultimate sentences, Park said.

“This has been completely lost in the discussion of this bill,” he said. “The bill does so much important work to improve the quality of the code, and everyone just kind of waves that away and doesn’t talk about that, where that’s really the guts and the heart and soul of what this bill does and why it’s so important. It’s definitely frustrating that really the most important aspects of the bill have kind of fallen by the wayside in terms of some of the narrative around it.”

Raskin argued that Republicans were not really interested in delving into the details of the legislation — only in making a political statement.

“They’re not really interested in scrutinizing the actual criminal justice policy,” he said, noting they held no hearings to learn more about the legislation. “They just want to kick the people of Washington, D.C., around.”

This article has been updated to include a statement Bowser made on Friday, the day after the votes.