- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A powerful House committee chairman said the District of Columbia has “deteriorated and declined” across the board in recent years, leaving Congress with no choice but to step in and restore public safety in the nation’s capital on behalf of residents, workers and visitors.

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer on Wednesday accused city leaders of spending money they don’t have on liberal initiatives while carjackings increased 105% from this time last year and property crimes and homicide rates have worsened.

“The crime statistics alone are shocking,” the Kentucky Republican said at a rare oversight hearing that hauled city leaders to Capitol Hill. “Just days ago, 14 men were shot in 10 separate incidents within a 27-hour span in Washington, D.C.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican, said the city’s soft-on-crime policies are to blame. She cited a staff member who kept hearing gunshots and decided to move to Maryland.

Rep. Russell Fry, South Carolina Republican, displayed a scrolling list of Capitol Hill crime alerts full of stabbings and robberies.

“People should feel safe in our nation’s capital, and quite frankly they don’t,” he said.

A staffer for Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, was the victim of a violent stabbing over the weekend. Even as lawmakers debated the issue at the hearing, D.C. Metropolitan Police sent an alert saying they were on the lookout for the perpetrator of a double shooting in Southeast Washington.

A 1973 law expanded self-rule in the nation’s capital, letting D.C. residents elect a mayor and city council with legislative powers. However, Congress retains the power to block city laws during a mandatory review period, and the new House Republican majority is flexing that power.

The oversight panel on Wednesday advanced a resolution, by a vote of 21-17, that would rescind a D.C. police overhaul effort that began in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020. A final bill was transmitted to Congress in January.

Democrats opposed the resolution, signaling that Republicans will have a hard time replicating their successful effort to block a D.C. overhaul of the criminal code that would have weakened maximum penalties for carjacking and other crimes.

Many Democrats supported the resolution, and President Biden decided not to veto it, underscoring fears of being painted as soft on crime.

Yet committee Democrats said Republicans are going too far with their oversight, focusing on crime statistics in the District while violence is on full display across the country, including in Nashville, Tennessee, the site of a deadly school shooting Monday.

Democrats also pointed to the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by a mob stirred up by President Trump as one of the most notorious crimes in recent city history.

“I need people to pay attention to what the Republicans do. When it comes to lawlessness, they are all for it so long as it’s one of their little friends,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett, Texas Democrat.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, defended the city’s management. He said its financial reserves and pension funds are fully funded, its population has grown and it is making strides in extending health insurance and affordable housing. He called the city a “world-class theater town” and said hotel bookings remain strong.

“We run the city well,” he told the committee, and there is “not a crime crisis in Washington, D.C.”

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, acknowledged that homicides and carjackings are particular worries but said crime is part of a broader trend.

“These trends are being seen nationwide, and the District is not immune,” Mr. Allen said.

City leaders tried to turn the tables by saying federal leaders could make the capital safer.

They said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needs to share more data about interstate gun trafficking, and the U.S. attorney’s office in the District decides whether to prosecute crimes.

“These charging decisions are made by the federal United States attorney,” Mr. Mendelson said. “He’s the one who decides whether to paper these cases. It’s enormously frustrating to us.”

City leaders said the federal Bureau of Prisons does not communicate effectively with the city, making it difficult to know when felons — such as the one who attacked Mr. Paul’s staffer — return to the street.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, used the session to make her pitch for statehood so it has more control over its operations.

“They want to govern themselves like everybody else in this country,” she said of her constituents.

Republicans said Congress has a constitutional role in guiding the District and statehood won’t happen anytime soon.

Mr. Comer said the city’s education scores have lagged since Congress held a D.C. oversight hearing in 2019 and that city programs such as zero-fare bus services are fiscally imprudent.

“Free busing is not free; taxpayers still have to pay for it,” Mr. Comer said.

The D.C. Council approved legislation in December to subsidize free Metrobus rides starting in the summer, but Mayor Muriel Bowser did not include the plan in her budget proposal this month. The council plans to proceed with the program anyway.

Ms. Bowser will be invited to a second oversight hearing on May 16, Mr. Comer said. He added that the mayor should be treated like a Cabinet secretary and get her own session.

House Republicans frequently exercise their constitutional power to block D.C. laws, particularly when they hold the majority. Although disapproval resolutions rarely succeed, Republicans have attached so-called riders to must-pass legislation to block D.C. attempts to fund abortions with local funds and set up legal marijuana sales.

The city police overhaul targeted on Wednesday prohibited the use of neck restraints, increased access to footage from body-worn police cameras and expanded membership on the Force Review Board.

Mr. Mendelson said the bill was necessary to weed out police officers who are accused of serious crimes and should not be reinstated.

The D.C. Police Union said the changes have hurt officer retention and recruiting.

Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton said there has been a net loss of 459 union members since April 2020. He blamed anti-police rhetoric and legislation from the D.C. Council.

Mr. Pemberton said homicides have increased 75%, armed carjackings have risen 227% and armed robberies have increased 46% as police ranks dwindled over the past six years.

“Most tragic and alarming,” he said, “is that last year alone the juvenile homicide rate doubled.”

Rep. Gary Palmer, Alabama Republican, said the local school system is partly to blame.

“You’ve got crappy schools,” he told city leaders. “Your schools are not only dropout factories, they’re inmate factories.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide