President Joe Biden’s decision to side with Republicans in Congress to remove a provision in the District of Columbia budget has raised new concerns about his commitment to Democratic leadership in the city of taxation without representation.
A blow to efforts to reform criminal justice in the United States, that action also renewed attention on Biden’s role in fighting student busing and trying to limit the power of courts to order school desegregation more than four decades ago when he sponsored a bill that NAACP Legal Director Jack Greenberg said: “heaves a brick through the window of school integration.”
Biden’s comments are often described as offensive and anachronistic and during his 2020 campaign, he set off a firestorm by defending his work with segregationist senators.
The provision was by D.C. City Council with unanimous support earlier this year in a bill intended to eliminate unjust mandatory sentences and reduce penalties for certain violent offenses, such as robberies and carjackings.
Biden’s decision shows that he is incapable of Democratic leadership when it comes to protecting “home rule” in the federal district, where real Democrats wanted to eliminate unjust mandatory sentences and better deploy police to prevent crime.
The bill in question was unanimously approved by D.C. City Council earlier this year. The council later overrode a veto by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, paving the way for the legislation to be enshrined in law until Biden surprised lawmakers by siding with Republicans who wanted to invalidate the decision of the city’s elected lawmakers.
Among other things, the measure would have eliminated most mandatory sentences and it prescribed lower penalties for a number of violent offenses, including robberies and carjackings, which Biden specifically referred to in a tweet announcing his plans.
D.C. City Council had overridden a veto but even though the District of Columbia Mayor opposed these changes to the city’s criminal code, Bowser does not support the congressional effort to block them from taking effect.
Biden surprised lawmakers by siding with Republicans in Congress to remove the provision from the D.C. budget.
“His move has been seen as a betrayal of home rule for the federal district where overwhelmingly Democratic African American leaders have been elected as mayor and members of the thirteen-member Council,” said Democratic political strategist James Devine. “President Biden was able to scuttle the choice of elected representatives because, at heart, he does not trust Black people to govern themselves.”
The bill aimed to address the issue of unjust mandatory sentences that have disproportionately affected people of color and those from low-income backgrounds. It was also aimed at deploying police better to prevent criminals from exploiting citizens. However, with Biden’s decision to side with Republicans, these efforts may be stymied.
Critics have accused Biden of being out of touch with the realities of criminal justice reform in the United States. They argue that his decision to side with Republicans has weakened his position as a leader in the Democratic Party and undermined efforts to create a fairer, more just society.
The move is also one that could add steam to Democratic presidential challenger Marianne Williamson, who released a plan calling for reparations for the descendants of enslaved people in the US, wants to revive President Lyndon Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty,” and takes inspiration from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combat the “forces of greed and lust for power” emboldened by broken economic and political systems.
“Throughout our history, more than not we moved in the right direction, willing to course-correct in the face of our own transgressions,” said Williamson. “We answered slavery with abolition, the institutionalized suppression of women with the suffragette movement, and segregation with the civil rights movement.”
“The American imagination belonged overall to the better angels of our nature,” said Williamson. “We believed in governance according to the will of the people and we were willing, in the words of JFK, to bear any burden, pay any price, in order to further it.”
“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people had become our national creed,” said Williamson, who noted that about 40 years ago, “America took a detour onto a path that has shattered that democratic ideal.”
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