On April 20, 2021, the Biden administration called the “denial of self-governance” in Washington, D.C., “an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded,” wholeheartedly endorsing efforts to give D.C. statehood. But now President Biden is supporting a congressional effort to actively deny D.C.’s “self-governance.”
After the D.C. City Council voted unanimously in support of a criminal code reform bill—and voted 12–1 to override Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of it—Republicans pounced on the bill last month, vying to subvert local democratic processes and obstruct the reforms (Republicans interfering in democracy; who would’ve imagined?). But more astonishing was that many moderate Democrats joined the charade and voted to overturn the D.C. law too. And on Thursday, Biden announced he’d join them.
Democrats in and outside of D.C. are furious, noting that the administration either supports D.C. statehood, or it doesn’t. “The White House f***** this up royally,” one House Democrat texted The Hill. “F****** AMATEUR HOUR. HEADS SHOULD ROLL OVER AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THIS.” They added that numerous other members were “EXTREMELY PISSED.”
The House voted last month to block both D.C.’s proposed criminal code reform, which would eliminate most mandatory sentencing and reduce penalties for certain crimes, and another bill that would extend voting rights to noncitizens. An estimated 7 percent of D.C. residents are noncitizens of some form. It is likely to clear the Senate as well, and now with Biden’s announcement, a local government overseeing 700,000 residents will find its rule wholly subverted by the federal government.
An array of D.C. officials denounced the move. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Norton called the moment “a sad day for D.C. home rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance.”
Mayor Bowser—who, again, vetoed the criminal code reform—has not publicly commented since Biden’s decision, but last week, she wrote a letter to Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell beseeching Congress not to block the measures. “The insult of limited Home Rule is that the 700,000 DC residents and taxpaying Americans, and their duly elected officials, must endure the review and oversight of our laws by officials not elected to represent our interests or values,” Bowser wrote. “I call on all senators who share a commitment to the basic democratic principles of self-determination and local control to vote ‘NO’ on any disapproval resolutions involving duly elected laws of the District of Columbia.”
Democratic members of Congress echoed the concerns. “Plenty of places pass laws the President may disagree with. He should respect the people’s gov of DC just as he does elsewhere,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Number three House Democrat Pete Aguilar called the move “disappointing,” saying “I’m a former mayor of a city of 70,000 and I wouldn’t want the federal government coming in and telling me what city ordinances to pass.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called Biden’s move “smart politics,” adding that, “you don’t want to get left of the D.C. mayor.” As if any consequential number of the more than 250 million potential voters in this country will make their decision based on Biden’s stance on D.C. criminal justice policies.
And even aside from the political miscalculation, the rhetorical misstep is almost just as confounding. Opponents of D.C. statehood are now using this as yet another feather in their tattered caps against stopping taxation without representation.
For an administration that purports to care about D.C. statehood, it’s silly for it now to support overruling D.C.’s own local processes. But it’s also a move that has no substantial political benefits—which may make one question whether the administration actually ever wanted D.C. statehood at all.