Posted on February 9, 2023

House Votes to Block D.C. Bills on Noncitizen Voting, Criminal Code

Meagan Flynn, Washington Post, February 9, 2023

The Republican-controlled U.S. House flexed its power over D.C. on Thursday in voting to block a pair of local bills, with support from dozens of Democrats as well — the curtain-raiser this session in a long history of congressional interference in the city’s local governance.

The House voted in favor of two resolutions disapproving of the two D.C. bills: one that would allow noncitizens to vote in local D.C. elections; another marking a major revision of the city’s outdated criminal code, which has not been comprehensively updated since 1901. While the House Democratic whip urged Democrats to reject both resolutions, 42 Democrats joined Republicans to reject D.C. legislation allowing noncitizen voting and 31 joined Republicans to reject D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022.

The votes deal a major blow to local officials who implored members of Congress to stay out of the city’s affairs, although it is exactly the type of interference that they had been bracing for after the GOP took control of the House this year.

“We have two acts from the Washington, D.C., council that will dilute the vote of American citizens and endanger city residents and businesses,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said of the D.C. bills on the floor Thursday, arguing that it was Congress’s “responsibility” to intervene.

While D.C.’s home rule is limited, D.C. officials had urged members of Congress — who are not accountable to any D.C. residents — to avoid substituting their judgment for that of locally elected city council members.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District’s nonvoting representative, said there is “never justification for Congress nullifying legislation enacted by the District.”

“I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes D.C. residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, are unworthy or uncapable of governing themselves,” she said on the floor.

In a statement, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb (D) said he doubted the efforts to block the legislation were “about making the District safer or more just.”

“Today’s actions are political grandstanding and highlight the urgent need for D.C. statehood,” he said in reaction to the votes. {snip}

Congress has oversight of D.C. and the final say on its laws and budget thanks to a provision in the Constitution. Thursday marks the first time since 2015 that a disapproval resolution targeting D.C. legislation has made it to the House floor, though it’s been roughly three decades since Congress has successfully used a disapproval resolution to overturn D.C. legislation; the resolutions must also be approved by the president.

Congressional staff expects that neither disapproval resolution will be subject to the Senate filibuster and will only need to pass with a simple majority. The Senate could also fast-track the criminal code disapproval resolution: Procedural rules for a disapproval resolution targeting the D.C. criminal code allow any single member of the Senate to call to bring it to the floor for a vote, rather than going through committee under normal procedures.

Democrats in Congress — and especially the House — have shown near unity in recent years in support of D.C. statehood, meaning an argument appealing to the District’s home rule usually holds sway among most in the caucus. But the political hot-button nature of the two pieces of legislation — coupled with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s veto of the criminal code overhaul — raised the specter of defections among moderate Democrats. And without the Senate filibuster, just a few in the Senate would be enough for the disapproval resolutions to go to Biden’s desk.

The Biden administration said in a statement Monday that it opposes both resolutions, describing them as “clear examples of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood.” The statement, however, did not say whether Biden would veto the resolutions. {snip}

The D.C. Council passed legislation allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections in October, arguing that, regardless of immigration status, all D.C. residents have a vested interest in schools, public safety and other important local issues.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee who sponsored the disapproval resolution, said foreign nationals — who may work on behalf of foreign governments — or undocumented immigrants shouldn’t get a say in local elections. {snip}

The D.C. Council unanimously passed a once-in-a-century overhaul of its criminal code last fall, the product of 16 years of collaboration among prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice experts to painstakingly revise the city’s outdated — and often clunky and unclear — laws covering criminal offenses, sentencing and procedure. But while Bowser (D) said she agreed with 95 percent of the changes, she vetoed the legislation over concerns with several provisions she claimed would not make the city safer and would overburden the courts. The council overrode her veto last month.