Biden reversal to overturn D.C. crime law ignites ongoing statehood debate

"The people of D.C. demand and deserve better,” Markus Batchelor, national political director at People For the American Way, told theGrio.

President Joe Biden shocked D.C. leaders and activists on Thursday in announcing that he would not veto a bill coming down from Congress that would overturn recently passed laws in D.C. regarding crime and voting.

The decision was a reversal of a previous White House statement that opposed the legislative package led by Republicans – and supported by some Democrats – that would disapprove of the District of Columbia’s revised criminal code and a law that allows noncitizens to vote in local elections.

President Joe Biden addresses the media after the Democrats senate luncheon in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

At conflict is Biden’s record in support of D.C. becoming the nation’s 51st state and his decision not to safeguard D.C. laws that advocates say should not be decided by Congress because of home rule. They argue that the laws were passed by democratically elected D.C. officials and should be honored by lawmakers in Washington. 

“The president and congressional Democrats’ support for eventual #DCStatehood legislation rings hollow if they sacrifice the values that undergird the necessity for it. The people of D.C. demand and deserve better,” Markus Batchelor, national political director at People For the American Way, told theGrio.

Advocates and D.C. officials relied on the president’s veto power to block Congress from overturning the contested D.C. laws. The two resolutions, which seem destined to head to Biden’s desk, were already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, with all Republicans and more than a dozen Democrats voting in favor. Republicans also have enough votes in the U.S. Senate after Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said he would vote to block the D.C. crime law.

Batchelor said the issue of Congress disapproving the D.C. laws is about the fundamental principle of democracy and racial justice, particularly in a city of 700,000 residents who are majority Black and brown.

“President Biden summoned the support of the Congress and a global alliance to defend democracy and the will of free people abroad — and won’t even raise his pen to defend them for those Americans closest to him,” said Batchelor, referring to the unwavering support for Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia. 

Black Voters Matter (BVM) and more than 50 civil rights, voter rights, and racial justice organizations hold the first-ever national rally in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2021, in support of D.C. statehood. (Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“[This] is an unprecedented assault on the local autonomy of D.C. residents to pass their own laws, and especially on common sense pieces of legislation.”

D.C. leaders also pushed back against the core arguments against the D.C. crime law, which updated the district’s criminal code to reflect what they say is fairer sentencing for those convicted of certain crimes. 

“Congressional Republicans’ criticisms of our Revised Criminal Code Act don’t hold water,” D.C. City Councilman Zachary Parker said in a statement to theGrio. “This legislation makes modest, common-sense reforms to our more than 100-year-old criminal code.” 

However, Councilman Parker points out that the new criminal code also “contains stricter penalties for some crimes than many of these same representatives’ own states.”

A graphic provided by the councilman’s office compares and contrasts some of the sentencing penalties under the Revised Criminal Code Act. For example, armed carjacking would carry a maximum penalty of 24 years in prison in D.C., while in Georgia, the maximum is 20 years, and in states like Alabama and Kentucky, there are no max penalty statutes.

The penalty for carjacking was an example used by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during Thursday’s briefing to defend Biden’s reversal on vetoing the congressional resolution.

“He feels that we need to make sure that all communities, including … the folks who live in D.C., feel safe. And he feels that taking this action does exactly that,” said the presidential spokesperson.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre answers questions during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 3, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Jean-Pierre answered a range of questions during the briefing. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Jean-Pierre also argued that the president opposed the city council overriding D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the criminal code law. However, despite opposing the law over safety concerns, Mayor Bowser sent a letter calling for Congress not to overturn the D.C. crime and voting laws.

“To do so is no different than to deny us statehood and the same democracy cherished by all other tax-paying Americans,” wrote Mayor Bowser. “My concerns with the crime bill and my veto of it are better addressed locally, as they would be in every other locality in our great country, than by members of Congress who we did not elect and who do not represent us.”

President Biden in a tweet said that despite his decision to allow Congress to block the D.C. laws, he supports D.C. statehood and home rule.

The movement for D.C. statehood gained momentum in 2021 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. A bill that would make D.C. the 51st state of the United States passed in the House but was never brought up for a vote in the Senate, where Republicans would’ve certainly filibustered it.

Protesters, among them Kelsye Adams, DC Vote program director, rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2023, to demand D.C. Statehood and voting rights protection. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Batchelor, who sits on the board for the D.C. Statehood PAC, said he worries the Republican-led effort to disapprove of a D.C. law for the first time since 1991 signals the fight for statehood and home rule – which is enshrined in the District of Columbia Home Rule Act – will be an uphill battle.

“If they’re empowered by the thought that they can, with Democrat support, overturn laws in the District of Columbia, there’s no reason for them to think that they also can’t threaten the whole thing – all of home rule [and] our elected government completely,” he said.

“We have to keep calling out violations to our local autonomy. And we have to pressure our friends in the White House, and in Congress to stand up for us so that when the time comes, the argument for D.C. statehood is very clear.”

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