DC Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to reporters near the scene of a shooting on a Metro bus in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2023.

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CNN  — 

President Joe Biden is siding with Republicans and moderate Democrats to slap down local leaders of Washington, DC, as they try to update a 100-year-old criminal code that is showing its age.

Progressive Democrats are furious about the message this sends on criminal justice reform, and some DC residents feel betrayed by the president who lives in their midst.

But the headline version of this story, while it neatly fits the Republican political narrative that American cities are crime-infested and rotting, is incomplete.

Except for Biden’s move betraying DC residents who want to govern themselves. That part is hard to argue with.

The basic points are these:

Criminal code needs updating

DC’s local government has been trying for years to update its antiquated criminal code, much of which was written before anyone alive today was born.

For more on just how old and bizarre some of DC’s criminal laws sound today, I recommend reading this story from DCist’s Martin Austermuhle. He mentions laws about archaic stickball games being played in the city’s streets and regulating the movement of livestock through the city.

The criminal code reform passed by DC’s city council would have ended many mandatory minimum sentences and lowered sentence maximums, even for violent crimes like carjackings.

Local Democrats can’t agree

The updates have split local leaders on the council, which is dominated by Democrats. The most notable opponent of the new criminal code is DC’s Democratic mayor Muriel Bowser, no ally of national Republicans. In fact, DC’s council overrode her veto of the proposal earlier this year.

Bowser agrees with most of the measures but has questioned the lowering of some maximum sentences and greatly increasing the number of jury trials.

A special commission that has been working for years on the new code has argued the new maximum sentences are more in line with sentences that judges actually impose. Bowser has argued that lowering the maximum will lead judges to impose lower sentences too.

Seizing on DC to send a message about crime

While Democrats want to make DC a state, the Constitution gives Congress control over the federal district that houses the seat of the US government.

Republicans in Congress, joined by some Democrats, have vowed to use their power over the capital city to throw out the criminal code reform.

Under the home rule law that gave DC’s local government more autonomy back in the ’70s, Congress can review legislation passed by the city council, and simple majorities can reject anything.

The House, in a bipartisan but mostly Republican vote, rejected DC’s new criminal code in a vote last month. The Senate could vote next week, and with Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on board, is on track to reject the new criminal code.

Biden wants it both ways

Biden could allow the new criminal code to take effect by vetoing the measure running through Congress. It would only take 34 Democrats to sustain the veto. Instead, he’s made it clear he’ll kill the new criminal code reform.

Here’s how Biden explained his position in a tweet, as noted in the last edition of What Matters, but which is no less hard to follow today:

I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings.

If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it.

If you are confused about how a person can both be for home rule and yet willing to side with his normal political enemies to not let DC rule itself, you’re starting to understand why this move feels to a lot of Democrats like a betrayal.

“Any effort to overturn the District of Columbia’s democratically enacted laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern,” said the district’s attorney general Brian Schwalb in a statement.

It’s all created a weird situation where Bowser, the mayor, opposes both the council’s new criminal code and Biden’s decision to kill it.

“Until we are the 51st state, we live with that indignity,” Bowser told the local NPR station WAMU, referencing the “effects of limited home rule.”

Why would Biden do this?

Two words: Lori Lightfoot. She’s the Chicago mayor who was unceremoniously defeated in her reelection campaign when she finished third in voting this week. The main issue in the campaign was crime and controlling it, a turnaround from four years ago when Lightfoot was elected on promises to pursue police reform.

Crime is turning into a potent issue in local city elections, and Republicans are primed to use it against Democrats in the coming presidential election.

CNN’s Kyle Feldscher, Manu Raju and Kevin Liptak write that Biden’s move “reflects a rising desire among more moderate Democratic lawmakers to avoid being seen as soft on crime.”

They note that Biden was actually for home rule before his decision to oppose the reform of DC’s criminal code. The official statement laying out his administration’s policy said Congress should respect DC’s autonomy.

Back to the drawing board

Even Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who in January reintroduced a bill to grant DC statehood, would not call out Biden for rejecting the decision of DC’s city council.

Carper appeared on CNN on Friday morning and made clear he would support Biden’s decision to side with Republicans and throw out the new criminal code.

“What needs to happen here is the Washington, DC, council and the mayor need to work together,” Carper said. “The criminal code hasn’t been updated for 100 years. They didn’t get it entirely right when they went through the exercises over the last year.”