© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Mike Johnson National Police Week
House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks during National Police Week at at the U.S. Capitol. Jose Luis Magana/AP

House GOP Tries to Take Control of D.C.’s Crime Crackdown

D.C.’s new sweeping bill cracking down on crime goes into effect this week. So why does the House GOP feel the need to step in and crack down on crime itself?

When the D.C. government’s 2023 criminal overhaul came before Congress last year, Democrats and Republicans both voted to block it. President Joe Biden said he would move to prevent the changes as well. And the overhaul, which would have eased penalties for a number of crimes, never took effect.

Now, a year later, D.C. is set this week to enact another massive public safety overhaul, this time cracking down on crimes like carjackings, retail theft and illegal gun possession. In short, the new plan addresses the bipartisan concerns members of Congress and Biden have expressed before.

But that isn’t stopping House Republicans from trying to butt in on D.C.’s criminal code again.

On Wednesday night, the House passed the D.C. CRIMES Act, 225-181, with all Republicans and 18 Democrats voting to take control of D.C.’s sentencing laws.

“It is too little too late,” House Speaker Mike Johnson told NOTUS on Tuesday. “Our patience has grown thin with what they’ve allowed for such a long time.”

On paper, the bill is centered around juvenile crimes, lowering the age from 25 to 18 for lighter sentencing. But at the center of the partisan fight is an amendment to D.C.’s Home Rule that would take away local control in raising or lowering any criminal sentences.

Byron Donalds
Rep. Byron Donalds, sponsor of the DC CRIME bill, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Capitol. Jose Luis Magana/AP

The bill’s author, Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, said he was only “somewhat” aware that a D.C. overhaul cracking down on crimes like carjacking and retail theft is already in progress.

“But I will tell you, I have little faith in the D.C. Council to protect the city, so that’s why Congress is going to act on it,” he told reporters Wednesday before the vote.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton called the bill “radical, undemocratic and paternalistic,” which is how many Democrats seemed to see the legislation.

“They are being very redundant,” Holmes Norton said of Republicans. “The city has already made crime bills tougher, and yet we see this bill that’s just been passed here unnecessarily.”

“They seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the D.C. Council just legislated a whole host of new criminal penalties and offenses,” said House Oversight ranking member Jamie Raskin, who led the Democratic push against the bill.

“The Republicans have made it clear that they don’t have any serious substantive policy interest in crime in the District of Columbia, and it has also become clear that they don’t have any national legislative agenda. So this is in lieu of an agenda, and it is in the spirit of political scapegoating,” Raskin said.

By amending the Home Rule, the D.C. Council wouldn’t be able to increase criminal penalties or designate new offenses — two things the new overhaul does when it comes to carjacking, retail theft and illegal possession of a firearm.

“I don’t know if they meant to do that, but in their eagerness to kick the D.C. government around, they’ve written very sloppy legislation,” said Raskin.

Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana called the Donalds bill “an effort to instill sanity” into the District, arguing that Congress shouldn’t wait for a local overhaul.

“The fact remains that Washington, D.C., is the only city in the country that belongs to the entire country,” Higgins told NOTUS. “And therefore, it is a unique relationship between Congress and D.C. that doesn’t exist with any other city.”

He added that crime rates are not decreasing fast enough for Congress to let locals address the problem on their own.

“Under the Democrat leadership, it’s gonna take quite some time for them to change course,” Higgins said. “Me? If you put me in control of Washington, D.C., law enforcement, you wouldn’t have to lock your doors within a month. You’d leave your keys in your car.”

Of the 18 Democrats who voted for the bill, some said their vote was a symbolic message more than it was a call to amend the Home Rule.

“I’m trying to send a message to the community here in D.C. that crime is up, and I think a lot more needs to be done, and hopefully, the government officials see that we’re concerned about it and do more,” Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas said. “Somebody tried to mug me a couple years ago down Pennsylvania Avenue, that doesn’t happen to me in South Texas.”

Unlike the D.C. veto that made its way to Biden last year, Donalds’ bill is unlikely to make its way beyond the House. The White House said Tuesday it “strongly opposes”’ the bill and that it is “a counterproductive and destructive invasion of the District’s right to self-governance.”

House Democrats said they see Donalds’ bill as a way to punish the D.C. Council, not as a legitimate tactic to reduce crime.

“My understanding is that this is a different bill,” Rep. Kathy Manning, a Democrat who voted in favor of the 2023 veto, told NOTUS. “I don’t think it makes any sense.”

Other Democrats argued that Congress should steer clear of D.C. local politics altogether and allow local legislators to decide how crime is addressed.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, described the issue of D.C. self-legislating as a “core civil rights issue.”

“All of this only underscores the importance of why it is so critical that D.C. become a state and why D.C. statehood is so important because we have to take away these political toys away from partisan politics, national partisan politics, and allow the city to govern itself as any other city in this country would,” she said.

House Democratic leadership agreed, characterizing the GOP efforts to control D.C.’s criminal code as “overtly political” and “not a serious effort.”

“Most of us arrived here from the position of supporting and allowing individuals in D.C. to help guide those efforts, but we understand the tricky nature and our role here funding some of those,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, the No. 3 House Democrat, said during a Democratic leadership press conference on Wednesday morning.

Asked whether Democrats are worried that Republicans will paint their counterparts as soft on crime, Aguilar argued Democrats have a long history of funding public safety initiatives.

But overall, Democrats seemed to dismiss the GOP’s new D.C. crime bill on the basis that it was unnecessary intervention. As Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told NOTUS, Republicans are “always doing something they ought not to be doing.”

Katherine Swartz and Tinashe Chingarande are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.