Mar 6, 2023

The Washington D.C. crime bill.

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who attempted to veto the crime bill passed by city council. Image: Joe Flood / Flickr
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who attempted to veto the crime bill passed by city council. Image: Joe Flood / Flickr 

Plus, a reader question about my political views.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're breaking down the debate over the Washington D.C. crime bill and Biden's decision to oppose it. Plus, a reader question about my most extreme political views.

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Quick hits.

  1. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he will not run for president, removing the anti-Trump Republican from the field. (The decision)
  2. Former President Donald Trump won a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) with 62% of the vote. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came in second with 20% of the vote. (The poll)
  3. China set its annual GDP growth target for "around 5%," the lowest target it has set in three decades. (The target)
  4. President Biden had a skin lesion removed from his chest that was a common form of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma. No further treatment is necessary. (The cancer)
  5. Around 35 people were arrested after clashing with police at a controversial police training center that is under development just outside of Atlanta. Police say demonstrators threw rocks, Molotov cocktails and firecrackers at police. (The clash)

Today's topic.

The D.C. crime bill. On Thursday, President Biden said he would sign a Republican bill to overturn changes made to Washington D.C.'s laws that critics claim would reduce the penalties for some crimes.

What happened: Washington D.C.'s city council passed a bill to modernize its criminal code, which hasn't been rewritten since 1901. Included in the proposal was language that reduces or eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses and reduces the maximum penalties for certain kinds of burglaries, carjackings and robberies. The bill would allow for more specific classifications of crimes, and more clearly delineates between things like third degree robbery, i.e. unarmed pickpocketing, and first degree violent armed robbery. It would also allow for defendants to request jury trials in misdemeanor cases.

The city's mayor, Muriel Bowser (D), vetoed the bill, citing concerns that it could lessen sentences for certain crimes that are on the rise in the city. The city council then overrode her veto with a 12-1 vote.

However, the federal government has the authority to overrule laws in the capital under the "enclave clause" of the Constitution. In 1973, the D.C. Home Rule Act gave more power to local politicians for residents to govern themselves, but still allowed laws created by the local council to be overridden by Congress. Though legal, exercising such authority is rare: The federal government has not used their power to overrule local changes to the law since 1991.

Republicans passed a bill to block the changes to the criminal code with the support of 31 Democrats in the House, including Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN), who was recently mugged inside her apartment building in Washington D.C.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) said they would support the House bill overruling the changes if the bill made it to the Senate, where a simple majority would be enough to ratify it. Now, President Biden is saying he will not stand in the way of blocking the city council-backed changes, and more than 20 Senate Democrats are expected to vote for it.

Biden, who has long said Washington D.C. should be able to set its own laws free of Congress, appeared to change his position in order to stop the new crime bill from becoming law.

"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," Biden said on Twitter. "If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did, I'll sign it."

Biden's decision to allow the bill to move forward drew fury from House Democrats and members of Washington D.C.'s city council.

“So a lot of us who are allies voted no in order to support what the White House wanted. And now we are being hung out to dry,” one House Democrat told The Hill. “F****** AMATEUR HOUR. HEADS SHOULD ROLL OVER AT THE WHITE HOUSE OVER THIS.”

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to both the crime bill and Biden's decision from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticized the city council’s crime bill, saying it would lessen criminal penalties at a time when crime is on the rise.
  • Some argued that Biden took a cowardly path in opposing the bill, doing so discreetly.
  • Others wrote about Biden's hypocrisy in suddenly supporting a check on the D.C. city council by outsiders.

In City Journal, Rafael A. Mangual criticized the timing of the overhaul.

"The Democratic city council in Washington, D.C., voted to move forward with a plan to rewrite the city’s criminal code—all but doing away with mandatory minimum sentences, extending the right to a jury trial to misdemeanor cases, expanding the rights of convicts to petition judges for sentence reductions, and lowering the maximum penalties for various serious offenses such as burglary, robbery, and carjacking (on the rise for some time in the nation’s capital). While the proposed rewrite is not yet a done deal, the public should be disconcerted that things have gone this far... Revamping the criminal code isn’t the only thing that the D.C. city council aims to do.

"The council just voted to pass a new package of policing bills that make permanent reforms passed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—including a ban on police uses of neck restraints and restrictions on police use of tear gas. The package also includes new provisions that will require publication of police disciplinary records," Mangual wrote. "Absent from the council’s agenda is addressing the city’s struggles with police hiring. The D.C. Metro Police Department’s Chief, Robert Contee, recently told Fox News that his force was down 300 officers since he took his post in 2021; and a spokesperson said that as of August 2021, the department had close to 500 fewer officers than the 4,000 positions budgeted. Nor does the D.C. city council seem keen to address rising crime, despite the city averaging more than 205 homicides a year since 2020—60 percent higher than what the city averaged (127.6) between 2010 and 2019."

The Washington Examiner editorial board called it a cowardly flip-flop.

"At first, when House Republicans scheduled their vote on the measure, President Joe Biden promised his Democratic allies in Congress and in the district government that he would intervene with his veto, preserving the D.C. Council's special favor to local violent criminals," the board said. "Thanks perhaps in part to the recent savage criminal attack against Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) in her Washington apartment building, the House voted on a bipartisan basis to block the crime bill. Right after the House voted to scrap the bill, Biden did an about-face — not publicly, though. Instead of taking charge of the issue and making a speech, Biden revealed his flip-flop in private to Democratic senators, who then leaked the news to the press.

"Some people, understandably feeling threatened by escalating crime in the district and in many other cities, might feel gratitude toward Biden for this brief episode of wisdom. Has he turned over a new leaf? Will he seriously challenge the Democratic Left's consensus in favor of coddling criminals while demonizing parents, law-abiding gun owners, and taxpayers? Sadly, Biden has had no epiphany," they wrote. "Rather, what he shows by failing to keep his veto promise is that he will do the bare minimum to spare himself from the political consequences of his party's growing anti-police and pro-criminal policy consensus."

In National Review, Jim Geraghty called out the hypocrisy of Biden for his change of position.

"The new law indeed reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for carjackings, but also creates more classifications of the crime... The argument of the commission and the council is that reducing the mandatory minimum won’t necessarily reduce the time served, and that under current law, few felons serve the maximum time anyway," he said. "But Mayor Bowser argued that the new law would result in shorter sentences: 'If the penalty is high and the usual sentences are somewhat lower, if you take it down, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the sentences go even lower? Yes. It does. And that’s what we know.'... In Democratic circles, the fact that a mostly white Congress can overrule and reverse the decisions of a city council in a mostly black city is considered an antiquated, undemocratic abomination.

"Democrats largely tout the importance of 'home rule,' and allow the District of Columbia to make its own decisions. In fact, you’ve heard Democrats, including Joe Biden, argue that D.C. should become a state. As president, Biden declared less than two years ago that, 'This taxation without representation and denial of self governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded.' Unless, of course, two years before a Democratic president runs for reelection, the D.C. city council passes a law that Republicans could use to paint Democrats as soft on crime," Geraghty said. "Then, apparently, the president is happy to jump on board with a Republican-led effort to reject softer criminal penalties. President Biden’s position, as I summed up yesterday, is that he supports D.C. statehood, home rule, and the District of Columbia making its own decisions, right up until the moment the D.C. city council makes a decision that could hurt the Democratic Party’s image as a whole."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on the issue, with some saying Biden is smart to back Republicans and others arguing he is betraying D.C. residents.
  • Some argue Biden needs to take a moderate position on crime and should protect residents in D.C.
  • Others say Biden is stabbing the D.C. residency, and its Black majority in particular, in the back by mischaracterizing the changes.

Matt Lewis said Biden is smart to fight the changes.

"The president deserves kudos for saying he will sign a Republican-led resolution blocking a Washington, D.C. crime bill that would lower penalties for (among other things) carjacking and illegal possession of a firearm. Make no mistake: Although Biden’s decision is both substantively and morally right, it is still a brave move... First, Biden has plenty of cover—D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser opposes the bill, and 31 House Democrats voted last month against the soft-on-crime bill, as well. Second, the crime issue is salient. Look no further than Lori Lightfoot, who this week became the first Chicago mayor in four decades to lose re-election—and as the Associated Press noted prior to her loss, '…concerns about crime have dominated Tuesday’s mayoral election.'

Third, there is no disputing that crime is on the rise in our nation’s capital.... The Washington Post reports that D.C.’s homicide rate is up 40 percent over last year, and the Wall Street Journal notes that D.C. has seen a '109 percent increase in auto theft, according to local police data.' In the wake of demonstrably increasing crime rates, which invariably harm the poorest communities most, the D.C. city council chose this moment to pass this bill?

In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern said Biden stabbed D.C. in the back.

"His action will, perversely, make the District less safe, preserving an outdated 122-year-old criminal code whose ambiguities actually make it harder for prosecutors to charge violent crimes. Just as importantly, Biden’s decision will empower congressional Republicans to continue overriding D.C.’s democratically enacted legislation, including progressive laws expanding the rights of immigrants, abortion providers, LGBTQ people, and other vulnerable groups. The president has, in effect, declared open season on the District’s democracy... The chief complaint about the measure is that it would 'lower penalties' for violent crimes. That is, in every meaningful sense, just not true. What the bill really did was align penalties with the sentences that judges are already handing down. The Criminal Code Reform Commission obtained data from the D.C. Superior Court covering every adult case from 2010 to 2019; crunched the numbers to identify what sentences D.C. defendants really faced; then based its revisions on these figures.

"Take carjacking, which Biden cited as an excuse to nullify the measure. Under the current code, the maximum sentence for armed carjacking is 40 years, the same as second-degree murder. No one—not a single person—is sentenced to 40 years for armed carjacking in D.C., or anything close to it," Stern said. "The absolute harshest penalties for the offense today run about 15 years. So the new code reduced the maximum penalty from 40 years to 24 years. That’s still nine years longer than the lengthiest sentences handed down today. If the new code took effect, then, there’s no reason to believe that actual sentences for armed carjacking would go down. Judges would be free to continue imposing the exact same penalties that they have for decades."

In The Washington Post, Perry Beacon Jr. said Biden is putting reelection over his principles.

"Democratic presidents in the past have done troubling and at times truly terrible things to appease centrist White voters and win elections. President Biden shouldn’t continue that legacy — and I am becoming increasingly worried that he will... First, whatever the merits of the crime policy, it was adopted by the D.C. government in a totally appropriate process. Biden’s decision to override it completely contradicts the goals of D.C. home rule and eventual statehood, which the president claims to support," he wrote. "Biden also purports to support criminal justice reform. But by opposing D.C.’s provision, he is likely to embolden opponents of such reform across the country.

"Third, in a tweet announcing his decision, Biden suggested that he had to step in because of changes to the criminal code including the reduced penalty for carjacking. This is very misleading," Beacon Jr. said. "The new maximum penalty for first-degree carjacking is 18 years — down from 21. It’s not as if the D.C. Council doesn’t care about carjacking or wants to encourage it. It was very disingenuous for the president to imply he cares more about crime in D.C. than the 12 (of 13) members of the council who backed these changes... I think these decisions are largely about electoral politics. A big part of Biden’s 2024 strategy is to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin again. These states are disproportionately White and have a lot of swing voters… But I am still not convinced these moves are good politics. Republicans are going to cast Democrats as too lenient on crime and immigration no matter what."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I support D.C.'s home rule and do not think Congress should be able to intervene.
  • The crime bill is far more nuanced than the national debate makes it seem.
  • Local politicians should be able to resolve their differences given how close they are to a compromise.

I think there are two separate arguments to make about this crime bill. The first is over the "home rule" argument — whether Congress should be able to override the D.C. city council at all. The second is over the actual merits of the crime bill the D.C. city council passed.

On the home rule issue, I'm pretty firmly in the camp of D.C.'s right to self-governance. I don’t think that is a "right" or "left" position, as sides will flip-flop based on whether or not they like what the city government passes. Biden has long been an advocate of D.C.'s agency to make its own laws, and has even advocated for D.C. statehood. His turn here is clearly one of political expediency and hypocrisy. You either support D.C.'s ability to make its own rules, or you don't — you don't get to change your mind when they do something you don't like.

Of course, the idea that D.C’s local government should have agency is in line with the "state’s rights" concept many conservatives embrace — i.e., local leaders know what’s best for their constituency, and the prioritization of local over federal government is supported by the Constitution.

Since the federal government is located in the city in question, and the Constitution explicitly gives Congress authority, this is a little different. There is also an argument that when the mayor and city council disagree, perhaps Congress should have a role — but that argument is still unconvincing. Mayors and city councils bump heads all the time, and every city in America has routine democratic processes for resolving those disputes — one the D.C. city council exercised when it overruled Bowser’s veto. Now, we are seeing precisely how Congress can make a mess of a moment like this: By nationalizing the debate.

D.C.'s city council was nearly unanimous in passing this bill. The changes to the code were developed over 16 years and were fleshed out in hundreds of pages of recommendations with thousands of pages of commentary and justification by the committee assembled to update the criminal code. I sincerely doubt many, if any, members of Congress engaged with that content. I presume they are taking stances based on the nationalization of the crime debate. Why do I think that? Well, for starters, the bill does seem to be a lot more nuanced than the national debate is making it out to be, which brings me to the overhaul itself.

First, everyone should accept that the criminal code needs to be updated in the nation's capital. The current code still has prohibitions on ball games in city alleys and lays out mandates for feeding livestock. On top of being over 120 years old, it is considered one of the worst in the country in terms of consistency of application and is a sentencing nightmare for prosecutors, a reality best embodied by the fact you could face a harsher punishment for threatening to destroy someone's property than actually destroying it. It is plainly absurd that D.C. residents are living under such a code.

Consequently, many of the proposed changes seem unambiguously good to me. For instance, the bill will help delineate more clearly between crimes committed when someone is armed versus when they aren't, or when violence is committed and when it isn't. The overhaul also expands the Second Look Amendment Act, which allows people who were convicted for a long prison term when they were under the age of 25 to petition for an earlier release (the kind of second-chance judicial system that I have long supported).

While it is plainly true that some of the maximum sentences are being reduced for some crimes, it's also true that those maximum sentences were never even being issued. As Stern noted, nobody is getting 40 years in prison for carjacking, and frankly nobody should. The highest sentence that actually gets issued is something like 15 years. To bring the maximum sentence down to 24 years, which is what this bill did, is to bring the criminal code in line with reality, and it's still well above what any carjacker will ever be hit with.

Do I think that is going to meaningfully make carjackings worse? No, I don't. Carjackings in D.C. have been skyrocketing recently, even under the current criminal code with its 40-year maximum penalty. Carjacking and crimes like it are probably on the rise because of absurdly stupid social media trends, the blowback of Covid-19 on teenagers, and all the other pressures that typically drive up crime (drug use, lack of police presence, school absenteeism, poverty, etc.).

Separately, the new code would also allow for "stacking" sentences to increase the severity of punishments, should prosecutors want to. So while it is true to say, in general, that maximum sentences are being reduced and minimum sentences are being lessened, it's not true to say this will definitively lead to shorter sentences. It's more accurate to say that more serious and violent crime will probably be treated more harshly, while less serious and violent crime will be treated with more leniency. That is the kind of bipartisan criminal justice reform more people should be able to get behind.

There are other things in the bill, like forcing jury trials for all misdemeanors, that I simply don't know enough about to make a judgment on. It seems possible such a change could create huge backlogs and prevent many crimes from being tried at all. But it also seems fair to argue that everyone should get their day in court in front of a jury, even for smaller petty crimes.

Mayor Bowser, who vetoed the bill, said she agreed with 95% of the provisions. Which begs the question, how did we get here? If D.C. needs to compromise and close the gap on that 5%, that's what it should do. Perhaps that means allowing mandatory minimums to stay in place, or lessening the reduction of maximum penalties. Or, alternatively, the city council can reach an overwhelming consensus required to override the mayor’s veto — which they did, and is an example of city government working as intended.

Either outcome is better than Congress intervening, this bill failing, and the current code remaining in place. Local leaders should have the autonomy to solve the issue without congressional intervention, and it's hard to describe what we have now as anything other than a failure of governance.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Your opinions on daily topics are normally very centrist (with good reason, as things are often complex enough to warrant nuance). Are there particular topics where you lean heavily to one side or the other, and if so what are they?

— Bennett from New York, New York

Tangle: It's a good question. Given the difficulty of defining what is "left" or "right", it's hard to say which of my positions lean which direction on the political spectrum.

For example, I would say that I am something approaching a free speech absolutist. I oppose nearly all kinds of censorship, both by the government and by major corporations, because I believe the best way to oppose ideas is to deliberate on them out in the open, not to relegate them to the shadows. Hence, my arguments for combating misinformation and my belief we should stop calling everything a conspiracy. In today's political dichotomy, I think a lot of people say this is a "right-wing" position. But conservatives have also performed a lot of censorship in recent years, and it's a traditionally "liberal" political position to take. So where does that put me?

Another one that comes to mind is actually relevant to today's issue. I often say my most radical political position is on criminal justice. I'm pretty much convinced that locking human beings in cages doesn’t really prevent crime, and is not a good way to rehabilitate criminals or to punish them. I think our system — where we imprison millions and still have a lot more crime and violence than our contemporaries — is basically proof of that. I think our prisons are corrupt, broken, and inhumane. Most would probably call this a "left-wing" position, but a lot of my views on criminalization most neatly align with Libertarians, who are often considered on the "right" side of the political spectrum (read: limited government). So where does that put me?

Those are two examples that immediately come to mind when I think of positions I have that have become strongly "partisan" and evoke a lot of emotion in me. I'm not entirely sure where on the political spectrum either of those positions lands, but I think they aren’t in the center, and are the kinds of things that get me the most riled up.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


We have a lot of new readers to Tangle today, and I just wanted to say, "Hi." For those of you who are new here and for anyone who missed Friday's subscribers-only guest post from a Chinese political dissident, here were some reactions:

— "This was incredibly powerful and moving and makes me proud and blessed to be an American."

— "It’s refreshing to see this response to the latest developments in China from this new generation. I expect they speak for many who have not been given this platform."

— "This almost made me cry with despair for the future of your correspondent."

— "Thanks for sharing this, it's a great insight into a wildly different world."

— "This was incredibly special and important and I am grateful you shared this."

You can read Tangle for free Monday-Thursday. But, like most Friday editions, this post is paywalled. If you're a paying subscriber (or want to become one) you can read it here.

Under the radar.

Early on in the pandemic, hotels, bars, and restaurants were hit hardest while many jobs in the tech sector took off. Now, the leisure and hospitality industry is booming while business and tech-related services are slowing down. Bars, hotels, and restaurants are now the fastest growing employers in America. They added around 128,000 workers in January, according to the Labor Department. The change has helped keep the unemployment rate at a 53-year low. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


  • 31%. The increase in homicides in Washington D.C. from the same time last year.
  • 99. The number of carjackings in D.C. so far this year.
  • 73%. The percentage of those arrested for carjacking who were juveniles.
  • 40. The maximum number of years someone can be sentenced for armed carjacking in Washington D.C.
  • 24. The new proposed maximum number of years someone can be sentenced for armed carjacking in Washington D.C.
  • 15. The average sentence handed down, in years, for armed carjacking in Washington D.C. from 2016 to 2020.
  • 7.25. The average sentence handed down, in years, for unarmed carjacking in Washington D.C. from 2016 to 2020.
  • 31. The number of House Democrats who voted for the Republican-backed bill to stop the overhaul.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but I had just written "Don't lose the plot" about the war beginning in Ukraine.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter: The fight over the Marilyn Monroe statue.
  • Increases: In Thursday's poll, 52% of Tangle readers said they wanted more legal immigration and 69% said they wanted more security on the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Nothing to do with politics: A new TikTok account is becoming famous, and it's just videos of people unclogging drains.
  • Take the poll: Do you think Congress should block the changes to D.C.'s criminal code? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

Two 81-year-old friends are proving it’s never too late to try to see the world. Sandy Hazelip and Ellie Hamby, who say they were inspired by Jules Verne's novel "Around the World in 80 Days" are attempting to visit all seven continents, all nine man-made wonders of the world, and 18 countries in less than three months. The two have already visited Antarctica and seen Mt. Everest from a plane. Knee replacements and family concerns haven't slowed them down, either. "My daughter is not too concerned," Hamby said. "She just says 'Well, if Mom falls out of a hot air balloon in Egypt or off of the mountain ... That's fine. She's living the life she wanted to live, and I'm happy for her.'" CBS News has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.