When the House voted to repeal a batch of D.C. criminal justice reforms last month, 173 of 204 voting Democrats—85 percent—opposed the Republican-led push. When the measure came up in the Senate Wednesday night, all but 14 of the Senate’s 51 Democrats joined Republicans to overrule the D.C. Council.
What changed in the last four weeks is a case study in bad politics, bad communication, and a whole lot of Democratic politicians who are afraid to appear soft on crime. More specifically, what changed over that time was President Joe Biden.
Biden announced last week that he would sign the D.C. crime legislation, which would repeal a measure to reduce penalties for certain crimes and block a D.C. bill for the first time in more than 30 years. For all the democratic platitudes about D.C. governing itself—Democratic Party platitudes, more accurately—Congress maintains the ability to overrule local politicians in the District of Columbia.
When the House voted on Feb. 9, Democratic lawmakers assumed Biden would veto the resolution—mostly because that was what the administration had suggested just three days earlier.
“This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded… While we work towards making Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” a Statement of Administration Policy from Feb. 6 read.
But after a month of intense GOP attacks about crime-ridden cities getting worse, Biden thought better about tacitly approving changes that would lessen the penalties for crimes like carjacking, robbery, and home invasion. Now the resolution is set to become the first piece of legislation from this new Congress that the president signs. And 173 House Democrats are getting burned.
“There could have been a lot better communication, and that’s just a professional courtesy… to let us know what his intent was on that,” Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK), who voted against the bill, told The Daily Beast. “So I think it just shows that we’re not always organized.”
Peltola is one of 15 vulnerable House Democrats that the National Republican Congressional Committee—the House GOP’s campaign arm—is now running ads against, touting the vote as a signifier of being weak on crime. The ads, first reported by Axios, dub the 173 House Democrats who voted for the bills as “extremists,” calling the proposals “so crazy, even President Biden won’t support the anarchy.”
Peltola’s sentiment was a familiar one among fellow House Democrats Thursday. Many—at least publicly—stand by their votes. After all, it’s difficult to walk back the position you already voted for, or to publicly admit the sway White House guidance has on how members actually vote.
But a number of House Democrats said it would have been nice to have a heads-up that they were taking a vote that would make them look softer on crime than Biden.
“I think that the communication could’ve been better from down the street at Pennsylvania [Avenue]. I’ve said that I was disappointed. That holds true,” Democratic Caucus Leader Pete Aguilar (D-CA) told reporters.
Others were far less diplomatic about the flip-flop.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) said he had “whiplash.”
“None of us really want to defend these D.C. policy moves,” Huffman said, “but we should all be comfortable defending home rule.”
He continued that what made Biden’s decision so damaging for Democrats was that it undermined the messaging. Before Biden reversed himself, it was easy for Democrats to defend their vote because they were defending “the principle” of allowing a city to make its own law. Once Biden decided that wasn’t the case, Democrats may have a tougher time ignoring the actual policies.
“D.C. has a right to pass dumb ordinances just like any city in America without Congress coming in and becoming a surrogate city council,” Huffman said.
He concluded that Biden hadn’t made Democrats’ work “any easier.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) was also forceful about her assessment.
“I’m deeply disappointed to see the President announce he will allow Congress to overturn a D.C. law for the first time in decades,” Jayapal said in a statement. “This is simple: The District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself. Democrats’ commitment to home rule should apply regardless of the substance of the local legislation.”
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) also said he was “disappointed” in the about-face from the administration. “It’s frustrating, especially considering the issue of decarceration and criminal justice reform. It seemed like D.C. was trying to take a leadership role on that issue,” Bowman told The Daily Beast.
Bowman went on to lament what he sees as the administration being wary of ticking off police unions and players in the “prison industrial complex.” The congressman came to the Hill in the wake of protests over the murder of George Floyd, yet he says the issue hasn’t been meaningfully tackled since then.
The move by Biden was a step in the opposite direction, he said.
“It speaks to a lack of, maybe, understanding from the President, maybe a lack of courage, or maybe a lack of vision when it comes to the overall justice reform that’s needed in our country,” he said.
As Bowman noted, it’s been years since substantive criminal justice reform laws were passed at the federal level—largely leaving the issue to state and local governments. Chances of reform are no better after the 2022 cycle, when the dreaded label of being “soft on crime” made its way into congressional races like it was the 1990s.
But this latest misstep provides new life to the attacks. Not only did most House Democrats functionally vote to reduce sentences for a number of crimes, they also positioned themselves to the left of Biden on crime—even if they’re not.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told The Daily Beast Wednesday night that congressional Republicans needed to commit “here and now” to joining Biden—”not obstructing him”—to fight the rising crime rate that the president inherited.
“The American people will not stand for further GOP sabotage of law enforcement,” Bates said. “Republicans need to assure the nation that they will abandon their years-long efforts to defund the police by targeting the COPS program President Biden created as a senator, including in their budget. They should forcefully condemn their colleagues who are calling for defunding the FBI and the ATF. And they need to get with the program on gun crime by finally dropping their opposition to an assault weapons ban, instead of trading AR-15 lapel pins and choosing the gun lobby over safer streets.”
“This isn’t a game,” Bates continued, “it’s life and death. Their years-long campaign to slash law enforcement funding in the name of ideology couldn’t be more at odds with the country.”
But Biden’s reversal has brought an even brighter spotlight to the issue of crime and this specific vote. And it’s exacerbated the blowback for a number of moderates who feel vulnerable to GOP attacks on social issues.
The NRCC ads—the first of the 2024 cycle—are a sign of saliency and potency. And it’s a clue as to how Republicans may try to defend their House majority, as well as secure the White House and the Senate.
Members targeted by the media blitz didn’t seem eager to talk about the subject Tuesday. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) was unwilling to discuss the ads—or the D.C. crime bill altogether—in the Capitol Tuesday.
Asked for his reaction to Biden’s policy switch, Horsford replied, “Why aren’t you asking about voting rights?”
The Daily Beast has written dozens of stories about voting rights, and when we made that clear—as well as the fact that the Senate was voting on the D.C. crime resolution on Wednesday—Horsford simply insisted the “Senate should be bringing up the Voting Rights Act.” He also contended that The Daily Beast should be asking the NRCC why it’s not working to bring up the Voting Rights Act in the Senate, either.
Rep. Val Hoyle (D-OR), another target of the ads, said her district “doesn’t really pay attention to D.C., but they do care about home rule, and they don’t want the government overturning their local decisions.”
Asked about the administration’s policy shift on the matter, Hoyle said she was “comfortable” with her vote. “I vote my district and my values, and that’s it,” she said.
The final vote on the D.C. crime resolution comes during an already tense week for Democrats, after reports that the administration is considering reinstating some Trump-era immigration detention policies. Congressional Democrats, namely in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have expressed outrage over that idea.
Some have seen Biden’s recent policy moves as an apparent shift toward the center and away from his progressive accomplishments from the past two years.
But the handling of this D.C. crime resolution—as well as the underlying bill—has been unforced error after unforced error.
First, the reforms to punishments for crimes like carjackings and robberies come at a time when both of those crimes are up in D.C., though many other crimes are down in the District. Most notably, the bill would have done away with most mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed in the District.
But the politics of this bill were so bad that D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser actually vetoed it herself, only to have the D.C. Council unanimously override her veto. Bowser noted that the bill would significantly reduce sentences for crimes like being arrested with a gun after a previous conviction of a violent crime (from 15 years to four years) and would create holes in prosecuting crimes like possession of a firearm by an unauthorized person.
The D.C. Council didn’t care, and pushed ahead with the changes, which would have gone into effect in 2025. But that’s when Congress got involved.
Unlike Democrats, the politics for Republicans were easy. The GOP has never really got behind autonomy for D.C., and there were easy political points to score by opposing these changes. Biden’s decision to back the GOP effort further lent credence to the resolution, and made it harder for Democrats to oppose.
Which is likely why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who had previously not disclosed how he’d vote, ended up urging Democratic senators to vote for the resolution.
On Tuesday, a day before the vote, Schumer said it was a “close question,” but ultimately, he sided with the president and some of his most vulnerable senators who had already announced they would vote for the GOP legislation.
“On balance, I’m voting yes,” Schumer said.
And on Wednesday, he and 32 other Democrats voted with Republicans, making the 173 House Democrats who voted against look more extreme still.