Key takeaways from contentious House hearing on crime in D.C.
On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee questioned members of the Washington, D.C., city government in a tense, sharply partisan hearing that focused on concerns about violent crime in the nation’s capital.
“Radical left-wing policies have led to a crime crisis,” said Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., setting the tone for what followed.
Here are the key takeaways from the hearing.
The hearing was an extension of the D.C. Crime Bill fight
Wednesday’s hearing took place just over a week after President Biden signed a bill that rescinded the City Council’s overhaul of D.C.’s criminal code. The legislation signed by the president was spearheaded by Republicans in Congress but gained significant support from Democrats, especially in the Senate, where 31 Democrats voted in favor of it.
While the city’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser had been critical of many of the reforms passed by the city council, Republicans have taken advantage of Democratic squabbling by portraying the Democrats as weak on crime, sometimes citing Bower’s objections to the council’s approach. Bowser vetoed the bill in January, saying that while she embraced much of the overhaul, she wanted the council to abandon reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for offenses such as robberies, carjackings and home invasions.
Concerns over crime have been a potent political force in recent years. After the protests over George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis in 2020, many progressive activists and some Democrats called for reduced funding for police. But the murder rate rose nationally in 2020, Republicans used the “defund the police” slogan to criticize Democrats over crime, even though the murder rate rose in cities and jurisdictions that were overseen by Democrats and Republicans alike.
On Wednesday, Republican members of the House Oversight Committee also recounted the personal experiences of their staffers to make the case that crime is out of control in the nation’s capital. Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C. — whose own district has significant crime concerns — talked about crime alerts that one of his staffers in D.C. received in the month of March, and read local news headlines about specific crimes.
Some Republicans, like Rep. Gary Palmer, took personal shots at the city and its schools.
“You’ve got crappy schools,” Palmer told the D.C. council members. “Your schools are not only dropout factories, they’re inmate factories.”
The stabbing of a Rand Paul staffer
Numerous Republicans mentioned the stabbing on Saturday of an aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., by a man who police said had been released from federal prison the day before.
“I’d also like to point out the Rand Paul staffer that was stabbed in the head, stabbed in the head, in broad daylight here in our nation’s capital,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said at one point, who added that she had to warn guests from her state “about the amount of crime and how dangerous the city’s streets are.”
The Senate aide has told police he did not know the suspect, who was identified as Glynn Neal. Police documents say that Paul’s aide suffered a stab wound to his skull, a punctured lung, and other serious injuries that required surgery.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, told the House Oversight Committee that the attack on Paul’s aide was “horrible” and said that D.C. authorities were not notified by the Federal Bureau of Prisons about the release of Neal the day before. Neal was also supposed to be supervised by another federal agency, Mendelson said.
Mendelson and Council Member Charles Allen both said that part of D.C.’s problem in prosecuting crimes is that the City Council has little authority over the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is a federal office.
The Washington Post on Wednesday cited a recent report that showed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. declined to prosecute 67% of those arrested in the district in 2022.
“We have no accountability and no oversight” over the U.S. attorney, Allen said. Mendelson said Congress needed to provide the U.S. Attorney’s Office with more resources so it can prosecute more crimes.
Debate over the extent of the crime problem
Mendelson did not mince words when it came to his opinion on crime in D.C.
“Yes, there is considerable concern, but while perception is important, the reality is less concerning,” Mendelson said of the crime issue. “People should feel safe, and it is a problem that many residents of the district don’t. But the number of violent crime incidents in 2022 was 45% lower than the number of violent crime incidents in 2012.”
“There is not a crime crisis in Washington, D.C.,” Mendelson said.
House Oversight Chairman James Comer strenuously disagreed.
“Our nation’s capital has deteriorated,” Comer said, citing crime statistics that he called shocking. Comer said that carjackings are up by 105% and homicides have increased 37% since 2019.
“D.C. clearly has a crime crisis,” Comer said.
Is “federal interference” hurting public safety?
Mendelson said that the repeal of the city’s revised criminal code by Congress and Biden was part of a pattern that impedes the ability of Washington to strengthen public safety.
He laid out nine ways Congress could “enhance public safety,” including increased funding for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Congress has also blocked the district’s attempt to regulate the sale of marijuana, Mendelson said. This has led to a black market of $600 million in which storefront operations sell small items like pens and stickers, and add a “gift” of marijuana to the sale.
“Our police do try to shut down the illegal stores. And the U.S. attorney — the individual responsible for prosecuting these crimes — declines to prosecute. The situation is out of control. Congress’s interference in this matter has had a negative impact on public safety,” Mendelson said in his prepared testimony.
Mendelson laid out a robust set of data points to illustrate his argument that for the past 25 years, Washington has been “a model for other jurisdictions ... despite unnecessary and counterproductive congressional interference in our local affairs.”
“Every year we watch as members of Congress with no connection to the district introduce legislation or insert appropriation riders that detrimentally impact the functions of our government. These legislative efforts are often motivated by a desire to score political points on hot topics in national politics without any regard for why we enact the laws that we do or the effect on broader policies,” Mendelson said.