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The DC Council Acting Like Congress

The last session of the DC Council was disappointing. Some good Councilmembers missed the opportunity to move campaign finance reform and instead chose to meddle in areas that really shouldn’t be their purview.

In September, the Mayor sent a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill to the Council. It was viewed by many as a huge step forward and it ended bundling and pay-to-play politics. Between September and now the Council could have easily held hearings and brought a bill to a vote. The concern of many residents is that some purposely didn’t so they could play by the old rules as they begin raising money for their next elections. In the last go-round Councilwoman Bowser spent $350,000 on a Ward election in which she basically ran unopposed. That seems to be excessive by any standard. Now we know that a number of the councilmembers are gearing up to run for Mayor or another office in 2014 and they will be raising money as fast as they can. I question if any of them will move quickly in the new session to stop the egregious examples of taking money from those with City contracts that they have approved or will be called on to approve.

The Council also has refused to eliminate their Constituent Service Funds which allow them to raise about $40,000 a year or $160,000 during their term in office to spend as they see fit. Many view this as a slush fund from which to do favors for constituents. It gives current councilmembers a big pot of nearly unregulated money to use which a challenger wouldn’t have.

What the Council did instead was quibble with the Mayor over whether he could raise or lower speed limits or traffic fines. They claim this is their right although it is a mayoral agency which does the study and this clearly should be done by regulation as in most cities. One would think the council has enough to do without taking on the role of setting speed limits. The Mayor reduced the most common speeding tickets from cameras previously set as high as $125 to $100. The Council intervened and said it should be $92. Now what study did the Council use to determine that the $8 made a difference?

The Council rejected the Mayor’s plan to add 48 police officers. The Mayor had shown how this would be paid for and the people of the District would have been better off if the Council approved this now instead of saying they will look at it sometime in the future.

These actions remind me of the United States Congress and how they put important legislation off to the uncertain future. The Council should be reminded that the approval rating of Congress is now at about 10%. It was only two years ago when Vincent Gray was Chair of the Council that it had one of the highest ratings of any legislative body in the nation. I think with these actions we may not see that again for a long time to come.

When the Council is sworn in next month they must begin to deal with the serious issues that are theirs to legislate and stop interfering with the daily operation of the City government. Their role is oversight not legislating minutia. They must announce immediate hearings on Campaign finance; rightsizing the MPD as new people move into the District; and ensuring that the new Healthcare Exchange doesn’t operate in a way that will be detrimental to small business in the District. Those may well be the issues that people vote on in the next election.

There is still time for real leadership to emerge from the current Council and many hope that will happen soon.