Roshomon* Ethics: The House Votes To Block Two D.C. Laws

What’s going on here? As is often the case, it depends on who you are and what your perspective is.

The House voted by large margins to adopt resolutions that would overturn a two laws passed by the District of Columbia’s City Council. It was the first attempt to interfere with the District’s “home rule’ privileges in more than 30 years,  when Congress  overruled a local law in 1991 to annul a measure that would have allowed the construction of an apartment and office complex 20 feet above the city’s downtown height limit. Nothing in the District is allowed to be taller than the Washington Monument, and that was considered a potential wound to the Capital’s mystique and the honor due to its namesake.

Congress can exercise authority over D.C. local affairs, according to the District Clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17). Congress reviews all D.C. legislation before it can become law (the members seldom read them, or course, usually acting as rubber stamps) and can change or reveres D.C. legislation. It is a power that Congress hesitates to use, however, especially when Democrats are in the majority. The two measures opposed this time, however were just asking for a slapdown. One allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections, a recent fad in woke cities, D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, which would lower penalties for a number of violent criminal offenses.

The reaction of D.C.’s race-obsessed political class was so predictable it wasn’t even a challenge. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting House delegate, reacted to the House vote by playing the plantation card, saying, “D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black and brown, are either unworthy or incapable of governing themselves.”

Res ipsa loquitur, Eleanor. Both laws are irresponsible, and the federal government has a legitimate interest in protecting the image of the Capital, those who work there, and its symbolic importance to the nation itself. Allowing illegal immigrants to vote cheapens the franchise—Ethics Alarms has discussed this before—is arguably unconstitutional and also provides another incentive for foreign nationals to break our laws to gain privileges reserved for citizens. Lowering penalties for serious crimes nicely fits the “over-incarceration” CRT talking point, since most convicted felons in the District are black, but almost all of the victims of crime are too. The city, like all of the large US cities run by Democrats, is in the midst of a multiyear rise in serious crimes, with D.C. thus being especially fond of murders and carjackings.

The situation, however, crosses all kind of lines and conflicts, making an assessment of whether the House’s action is ethical or not. I almost made this an ethics quiz.

Arguing for the attempted veto is the fact that Congress has statutory responsibility to oversee the District’s affairs for good reasons: this is where the government works and lives. There has to be some lines that the local government must not cross, and it shouldn’t be hard to see them. The alien voting law was particularly provocative, but lowering sentences in the middle of a crime wave isn’t far behind.

BUT…the democratic remedy for bad laws is for voters to throw out the elected officials who passed it. If D.C. wants home rule, then let voters live with their mistakes—like Chicago, New York, Baltimore and the others. Republicans are allegedly trying to protect against excessive government power as Democrats maneuver to constrain dissent and opposition. The resolutions seem inconsistent, even hypocritical.

Moreover, the House just walked itself into a systemic racism trope, and laid itself open to the “white supremacy” charge. Here is the white man’s Congress ruling supreme over a black city government elected by a majority black electorate.

EXCEPT that Mayor Muriel Bowser, the same mayor who had “Black Lives Matter” painted in giant block letters on a city street, vetoed the crime law. She’s a really bad mayor, but she’s not completely dim. She just has no integrity and doesn’t know what to do. She vetoed the law but said she didn’t want Congress to intervene, but her veto made it much easier for the House to vote against the law. It especially made it easier for Democrats: the vote today was 250-173. 28 Democrats voted with Republicans; for this Congress, that’s extreme bi-partisanship.

Finally, it is worth considering that the District’s complaints about being second class citizens withour representation in Congress are valid, even if the solution for it is elusive. If they can’t participate in their nation’s governance, at least they should be able to have full rights to govern themselves, even if they do it badly.

It is a close call, but the ethical thing would be to vote against both resolutions.

I think…

Footnote: I can’t let this pass. The Times report on the vote demonstrate perfectly how far the paper has wandered from basic journalism ethics and practice. For the Times, the story isn’t the House’s resolutions attempting to black the bill: that isn’t mentioned in the first paragraph—you know, where a news story is supposed to state the news? It’s that “the temperature between Congress and the city it sits in has plummeted to new lows.” you know: evil, racist Republicans.


*[For those not up on their film tropes and cultural history: “Rashomon” (Japanese: 羅生門) is a 1950 Japanese film directed and written by Akira Kurosawa. The film visualizes the accounts of several witnesses who describe the murder of a samurai in a forest, with all the accounts being very different from each other, yet apparently the witness’s genuine perception of events, though distorted by bias and self-interest. The film questions the existence of objective truth. Perhaps no classic film’s plot has been adapted as often as “Roshomon.” On TV, it was used in “CSI,” “Law and Order,” “Police Story,” “Farscape,” Star Trek: The Next Generation”; “Frasier,” “King of the Hill,” and a particularly funny episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

10 thoughts on “Roshomon* Ethics: The House Votes To Block Two D.C. Laws

  1. I believe both of these were put forth to ensure greater sympathy for statehood. Bowser vetoed the bill and says Congress should not intervene.
    If DC residents want 2 senators to represent them the simply return the residential land to Maryland. Virginia’s land contribution to the nations capital I believe was previously returned.
    The District was established as a enclave for national governmental operations. Lest we not forget, people move in knowing that they were not a state. This was a choice they made.
    If the current residents want to change their status they can move or have the land returned to the state from which it came.
    Creating a new state could create a situation in which one state could create significant problems for national operations by holding Congress hostage in issues relating to the state.

      • The proper solution is to expand the borders of DC to a 30 mile x 30 mile square (including that part of Virginia) and then disenfranchising everyone in it except one single ethicist.

        People beholden to voting for bigger and bigger government because that’s who they directly work for are a dangerous “royalty” and no good for the republic.

        • Maybe we should have the National government rotate among the various states. That would encourage a more equal distribution of income. Imagine the outcry from Montgomery, Frederick, PG and Howard counties in Maryland or Fairfax, Loudin counties in Virginia when the lose their disproportionate share of income derived from government operations.

  2. “Rashomon” was also used in a funny episode of “Mama’s Family” in which Mama ends up in the hospital after being hit with a stew pot which everyone tries to recap by placing themselves in the best light and the others in the worst.

    I have found it to be a fascinating study in how the three characters in question view themselves, the other two and their relationships with Mama.

    • Maybe I can use the Roshomon device for my fictional treatment of the early ’70s social and sexual mores! I think everyone was working under different assumptions and perceptions of reality at the time.

  3. Jack wrote:

    BUT…the democratic remedy for bad laws is for voters to throw out the elected officials who passed it. If D.C. wants home rule, then let voters live with their mistakes—like Chicago, New York, Baltimore and the others. Republicans are allegedly trying to protect against excessive government power as Democrats maneuver to constrain dissent and opposition. The resolutions seem inconsistent, even hypocritical.

    This is a compelling argument, Jack, but I must disagree.

    I can’t know for sure what the founders had in mind by allowing Congress to veto the home rule of the district, but my opinion is that it was intended for situations where, as in the 1991 case, the local government passed laws that would have substantially more than a de minimus impact on the nation’s capitol, or the nation’s character, in some way.

    If I’m right about that, then I think their decision to interfere in this case is justified. While I generally agree that it is better to let people govern themselves and live with the impact of that governance, this case begs more than just a laissez faire response for the following reasons:

    1. The law allowing illegal aliens to vote has national scope in the zeitgeist. It provides a slippery slope argument “If Washington DC can allow the undocumented (word used advisedly) to vote, why can’t the rest of America?” Logically, that’s easy to refute, but emotionally, it has significant force. Ultimately, this could be the pebble that starts a landslide, changing our national character beyond recognition (to the extent that isn’t currently the case) and deepening the divide between conservative and liberal political units. The position of DC in the national mind provides much greater potential impact for such extraordinary laws than, say, Los Angeles or New York.

    2. The law lowering penalties for certain violent crimes raises another issue, also raised above but to a lesser degree. It suggests that the denizens of Washington DC are no longer capable of effective self-rule, at least on this subject, and this is even more significant, again, because of what DC is and what it stands for. DC represents the seat of federal power, prestige, and history — a place where people from this country and countries all over the world come to see the wonders of American culture and history (whatever they may think of our history) including diplomats, foreign leaders, and other dignitaries. The crime law would place all those people at significantly greater risk, not just the DC electorate.

    Nominally, if the people of DC are happy assuming to themselves the risk of freeing violent prisoners, that’s a case of “good and harder,” to paraphrase Prof. Glenn Reynolds. But just as in my first point above, DC occupies a special place that gives the impact of local governance much broader and more consequential scope than say, Seattle or Buffalo.

    So for those reasons, I think that Congress is right to intervene in this case, if it can.

    I also agree that this gives the DC partisans an opportunity to demagogue their pet issues at the expense of common sense, but alas, some things are worth the price. I think this is one of them.

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