The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tennessee senator gloms onto D.C. crime to force a vote

Resolution from Sen. Bill Hagerty puts Hill Democrats, D.C. Council and Biden in tough position

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) has found a rarely used vehicle that allows Congress to simply reject a new D.C. law. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Sen. Bill Hagerty’s background doesn’t suggest much interest in local city council ordinances.

The Tennessee Republican worked in global management consulting, then launched a successful career in private equity while becoming a prominent GOP fundraiser, ending up as ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration.

Now, less than 2 1/2 years after winning his first Senate race, Hagerty, 63, has found a niche issue that has placed Democrats and President Biden in a political bind.

He is leading the charge against the D.C. Council’s revised criminal code that has drawn critics, ranging from conservatives to Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, for reducing sentencing on some violent crimes. And he could try to use a new perch to continue being a thorn in the liberal-leaning council’s side.

“I live here, my staff lives here. And I have my constituents come in all the time, I had 75 constituents visit me just two days ago,” Hagerty said in a brief interview in mid-February. “They need to be able to come here and feel safe, not threatened, not going to worry about getting carjacked, murdered or in some way harmed.”

While Congress has often meddled in the District’s affairs, Hagerty has found a rarely used vehicle that allows Congress to simply reject a new D.C. law in one fell swoop, with fast-track powers that allow any senator to force the vote without having to clear the usual 60-vote filibuster hurdle like most legislation.

All 49 Senate Republicans are backing this effort. More than a handful of Senate Democrats hailing from red and purple states could follow the lead of 31 House Democrats who joined with Republicans to give the resolution bipartisan support in their vote in early February.

With crime serving as a hot-button issue, Hagerty is all but guaranteeing the resolution will pass and head to the White House, where Biden administration officials have expressed opposition to the measure on the grounds that it interferes with local governance.

If so, that puts Biden under political pressure to issue his first presidential veto on a bill that will lead to accusations of being soft on crime. Or he can sign the measure and anger criminal justice activists who have long questioned his progressive bona fides going back to his authorship of the 1994 crime bill.

“I think the White House will have a very hard time vetoing this. You think about how the defund-the-police activity worked out for them,” Hagerty said. “That didn’t sell very well. And the American public is not happy about this type of behavior.”

D.C. officials are furious over what they consider congressional meddling in their local affairs, particularly from Republicans who usually advance states’ rights as a basic principle of modern conservatism.

Even Bowser, who vetoed the revisions to the criminal code last month, only to see the council overwhelmingly override her, wants to let local officials settle this matter.

Bowser says Congress shouldn’t interfere as it weighs nixing two D.C. bills

“Congress should not overturn laws duly enacted by the District of Columbia,” Bowser wrote in a letter dated Thursday. “My concern with the crime bill and the accompanying veto can be addressed by the Council of the District of Columbia.”

The District’s murder rate dropped a little in 2022 but still remains at historically high levels over the last 20 years. Carjackings jumped more than 200 percent from 2019, more than two-thirds of which involved juvenile offenders, part of what prompted Bowser to declare “an emergency” of youth violence.

Congress has long interfered in these local matters for the federal city, with its nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), often putting up a tough but outnumbered fight.

The GOP-controlled Congress during the Democratic Clinton administration imposed an oversight authority to manage the District’s finances in the mid-1990s. Republicans created a voucher system for poor D.C. students to attend private schools — a provision Democrats nixed when they took full power of Washington in 2009, under pressure from teachers’ unions. Then, the program was reinstated under a divided government in 2011.

Some conservatives have used the power of the federal purse to block the District from implementing liberal laws on marijuana and prohibiting funds to help low-income women obtain abortions.

Yet in a bipartisan gesture, Congress created a fund so that D.C. students could pay close to the equivalent of in-state tuition at colleges around the nation.

Those provisions, however, passed either as policy riders to spending bills or through normal legislative give and take. Hagerty has found the procedural needle in the haystack of home rule in which Congress can effectively veto council laws within 60 days of their enactment, particularly those connected to the criminal code.

D.C. Council overrides mayor’s veto of controversial new criminal code

These fast-track rules mean Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) can’t block the Hagerty resolution from a vote; a simple majority will send the matter to Biden’s desk. Hagerty should be able to force votes on his resolution before the Senate breaks on March 10 for a 10-day recess.

Republicans are pointing to the attack on Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) in her apartment building one mile north of the Capitol, just a few hours before the House voted on the District’s crime bill. Police say that her attacker had been arrested 12 previous times, serving prison time for assaulting an officer.

“When the soft-on-crime local government has become this incompetent; when members of Congress can’t go about their daily lives without being attacked; when families cannot come to visit their own capital in safety; then it is high time the federal government provides some adult supervision,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a speech on Feb. 16.

Hagerty got this task mostly because as it was being discussed in GOP circles, he and his staff moved quickly. He’s not on the Judiciary Committee and has no experience as a prosecutor.

His main focus has been on the Senate Banking Committee, given his financial background, but this year he also landed the top Republican spot on the financial services and general government subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

That was meant to match up with his Banking Committee work, overseeing the funding of the Treasury Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, among other agencies focused on Wall Street. But that panel also oversees federal funding for the D.C. government, making this foray by Hagerty a testing ground for how much he wants to wade into these local issues.

“I think it depends on how D.C. governs itself and whether it wants to make itself a national embarrassment or a safe and secure location,” Hagerty said.

Insiders will point out that this crime resolution uniquely fits into the narrowly crafted terms of congressional oversight that grant fast-track powers. Future GOP efforts at reining in District laws will likely require traditional coalition-building skills that win over broader Democratic support.

Hagerty’s political background — finance director for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, Cabinet member in then-Gov. Bill Haslam’s GOP administration — presented him as in line with Tennessee establishment figures such as former senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

Yet, the day before he was first sworn into office, Hagerty signed a letter with 10 other Republicans stating they would vote against certifying Biden’s victory. After the Capitol riot, Hagerty backed away and voted to confirm Biden’s win.

He hired more than a dozen staff with ties to the Trump administration, but his tone comes across closer to an ambassador’s diplomatic-speak — or someone trying to negotiate a multibillion-dollar deal — than some of the Senate’s rhetorical bomb throwers.

His expansive view of how Congress should view the local government will irk District officials who view these GOP lawmakers as interlopers in their local affairs — but Hagerty is ready for the tussle.

“There’s a partnership here that needs to be kept in mind,” Hagerty said. “And this city, I think, this District belongs to the nation as much as it does to the residents.”