Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
The week ahead…
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are in legislative session this week, with Senators returning to Washington this evening and Representatives on Tuesday. Having spent much of last week on Capitol Hill, I can report that crowds in Member offices, Capitol hallways, and house cafeterias are back to pre-pandemic levels. This week will be no different.
Crime emerging as key political issue…
In the run-up to the midterms, Republicans leveraged social media posts, public statements, and television ads to hammer home a “tough-on-crime” message aimed at motivating independent voters and putting Democrats on the defensive. Their campaign came in the wake of liberal activists’ ill-conceived “defund the police” message, and it sought to seize on a growing unease about public safety across America.
The results: mixed. In an NBC News exit poll of voters, 11% said that “crime” was the biggest issue driving their decision making—higher than immigration but well behind abortion and inflation. And, though the message fell short in some areas, it resonated in others, leading to Republican victories in five of six suburban New York City congressional seats.
Four months later, signs simmering just below the surface suggest that crime is only of increasing political importance headed into the 2024 presidential election.
But, before the politics and policy, here are the facts.
Data: Despite the doomsday rhetoric, the reality is that crime today remains at a relatively low level compared to historical trends. A summary:
1991—The violent crime rate in America peaked at about 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people, and it hasn’t been close since. It fell each year thereafter until 2014.
2014 to 2017—Violent crimes rates crept up from their lowest point before briefly falling again.
2019—Crime rates again trended upward, reaching 398.5 violent crimes per 100,00 people in 2020, still well below the 758-mark of the ‘90s. Last December, the FBI reported that “the data shows violent . . . crime remained consistent between 2020 and 2021,” which is the most recent government data available. (Note to policymakers: in January 2021, the FBI fully transitioned to a new crime reporting tool, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.)
2022—At least one study reports that violent crime may have fallen slightly in 2022, but not back to pre-pandemic levels.
Compiling, organizing, and evaluating national crime data is notoriously difficult. And, of course, any instance of rape, armed assault, or homicide is unacceptable. But for now, data does not support apoplectic messages that an explosion of crime has put Americans at constant risk of imminent harm.
But that’s not how it feels…
Perception Vs. Reality: Reading the room is an important political skill, and sometimes perception is more relevant in politics than reality. Drivers of Americans’ perception that a crime wave is sweeping the country:
- Certain crimes are indeed occurring more often in many of America’s cities. In Washington, D.C., crime data shows a 36% increase in homicides, a 111% increase in car thefts, a 146% increase in sex abuse cases so far this year compared to last. (The same data shows decreases in other crimes.) In February, Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) was assaulted in the elevator of her District apartment building, an incident that got Capitol Hill’s attention. More on the District below.
- High profile mass shootings, usually defined as incidents in which four or more people are shot, blanket the news. There were 95 mass shootings in America during the first two months of 2023, leaving 141 dead and 365 wounded.
- Footage of violent protests and property destruction in American cities over the last few years is seared into the national conscious. And social media presents a never-ending stream of footage of Americans behaving badly, including criminal conduct that previous generations would never see. It all leaves viewers with the perception that crime is everywhere, all the time.
Political maneuvering: As the 2024 presidential race takes shape, the key players are all making moves on crime.
They, like politicos of all stripes, watched last week as voters decided that Democratic Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot—the first black female to hold that post—didn’t deserve another term. Lightfoot was perceived as having done too little to fight crime in a city that saw a breathtaking 700 or more murders in each of the last three years. In a poll prior to the election, nearly 70% of Chicago voters listed public safety as their No. 1 or No. 2 most important issue. Those types of numbers get the attention of strategists on both sides of the aisle.
As Julia Manchester from The Hill reported last week, “Republicans up and down the ballot are working to retool their message on crime going into 2024 after the party found only limited success with the issue in the midterms… likely presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) traveled to the Democratic enclaves of New York and Chicago ahead of his expected presidential campaign launch with stops at police unions. . . . And former President Trump, who’s running for another White House bid in 2024, has repeatedly hammered President Biden on the issue.”
Biden, apparently recognizing that being tagged as “soft on crime” would hinder his reelection chances, took the remarkable step last week of siding with Republicans on a bill to overturn a liberal criminal justice reform bill passed by the Washington, D.C. City Council.
Local crime laws in the District may seem far removed from national politics, but the saga is revealing. Last November, the District’s City Council passed a rewrite of its criminal laws that were widely criticized as too lenient on criminals. The district’s liberal Mayor, Marial Bowser, vetoed the legislation, saying at the time “Anytime there’s a policy that reduces penalties, I think that sends the wrong message. That takes the focus off using guns or possessing guns, and I think that’s the wrong way to go.” That statement alone is noteworthy.
The District’s Council overrode the Mayor’s veto, 12-1, and that’s when Congress got involved.
While the District generally manages its own affairs, the U.S. Constitution grants Congress ultimate control over the district’s legislation “in all cases whatsoever.” Exercising that authority in February, the Republican-led House passed legislation (H.J. Res. 26) to override the District’s Council by a vote of 250-173. All 173 no votes were Democrats.
Despite the White House having issuing a Statement of Administration policy on February 6 indicating its opposition to the legislation, President Biden surprised many last Thursday when he said that he would sign the bill if it is approved by the Senate. “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 tweeted. Although Democrats have complained bitterly to the White House about changing positions—Members hate to unnecessarily take a tough vote—most have offered only muted criticism of Biden’s final position. Expect the Senate to overwhelmingly pass the resolution this week.
By opening the door to Republican’s efforts to overturn the District law, Biden in this instance chose a “tough on crime” stance over the progressive social justice movement. Some might call that (Bill) Clinton-styled “triangulation.” Or, as Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief of USA TODAY said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, “You see with Joe Biden’s decision, where he stands on this, that is his reelection announcement.”
What’s next: President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget will be released Thursday. With the crime issue front and center, expect congressional offices to pay extra addition to proposed Department of Justice funding—especially for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants. The vast majority of law enforcement is conducted at the state and local level, and these federal programs play a big role in supporting local police forces. Increasing funding here is a great way for both parties to get ahead of the issue.
- This week’s release of the President’s budget, which forecasts federal revenues and spending, will be another key moment in the fight over the debt limit. That, plus timely hearings with the Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve Chairman, will drive financial new coverage through the week.
- In the 117th Congress, Senate Democrats pushed through more than 90 of President Biden’s nominees to the federal bench, each of whom now holds a lifetime appointment. That’s a faster rate than both the Obama and Trump administrations. Senate Democrats looking to continue the trend in a 51-49 Senate will be hampered by the absence of Senator Feinstein and Senator Fetterman, both temporarily out due to medical issues. For now, Democrats may look to prioritize nominees that can gain the support of Republican Senators Graham, Murkowski, and Collins. Those Republicans have been most willing to support Biden nominees absent a specific problem.
- What happened to the SPACECOM HQ announcement? A top Air Force General said in November that the decision about the HQ’s permanent location would be made “soon.” It’s now March, so I guess his idea of “soon” and mine are different. Of note, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Strategic Command and Space Command this Thursday. Depending on the circumstances, administrations will sometimes coordinate major announcements to come just before—or after—congressional hearings to make life easier for their witnesses. If there is no SPACECOM announcement by Thursday, expect some pointed questions on the issue.
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Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. This news report is not intended to influence or persuade. Email Stephen at [email protected].