Change is coming to the District of Columbia. Well … maybe. That’s if efforts to address the long history of ethics violations in local politics gains steam. A recent bill from the D.C. City Council, plagued with a series of ethics scandals, seeks to provide more transparency among its leaders in city government.
Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, a Democrat from the city’s 4th ward, drafted a bill submitted in mid-November. The legislation is a mixture of various proposals from lawmakers over the course of the year.
“We feel like we really capture the spirit of the bills that were put forth,” said Bowser, according to The Washington Post.
But, everyone wants their hands on this one. Putting extra momentum and political push into the bill gives the appearance that the Council is truly doing something about ethics.
Washington, D.C., long known as a city full of federal lobbyists and their ethics issues, has experienced similar problems on the local level. Most D.C. Councilmembers these days, among the highest paid city council officials in the nation, find themselves besieged by ethics woes. Bowser’s bill not only addresses some long-standing requests for an ethics clean-up, but focuses more on those recent allegations that have hit the council in the past year.
The bill outlines some specific ideas to bring increased checks and balances to city officials and government workers. Some of the highlights are as follows:
- A Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) consisting of three members will be created. They will monitor the actions of all elected officials. The Board of Elections and Ethics will no longer handle this task. This is somewhat similar to the House Ethics Committee on Capitol Hill, so we’ll wait and see how this turns out.
- Strict penalties will be enforced when officials are found breaking the rules. Fines can range up to $5,000 per offense. The BEGA can also clamp down on a council-member’s ability to vote or sit on a committee. Censure is also one of the options the board can use against members in violation.
- Council members will be forced to file an affidavit every year verifying that all of their taxes are paid, no bribes were taken or offered, and they were not involved in any “pay- to-play schemes.” Considering the rampant dysfunction and infinite loopholes in D.C.’s contracting and procurement laws, that last provision will be difficult to prove or enforce.
- Cuts will be made to each members constituent service funds. They will be reduced from $80,000 to $40,000.
- Council members in trouble will be allowed to have legal defense funds. The maximum contribution is $5,000, but lobbyists are not allowed to contribute. Good luck with that one.
- The bill will not eliminate the donations, but rather curb the free and reduced price legal services that can come with lobbying agreements.
- Residents will have more leeway to recall elected officials during any of the four years of their term.
Kwame Brown, the chairman of the D.C. Council, says the vote on an ethics bill is a priority and will take place in early December. Brown’s speed-it-up attitude is reflective of his desire to put his own alleged ethics violations behind him.
Questions still remain even if the bill passes. Since the three-member Board of Ethics and Government Accountability committee is the cornerstone of the legislation, people want to know who will make up the board. Will those members be saddled with ethics violations of their own? And Republicans in the city might balk since they clearly won’t have a stake in serving on the board considering the overwhelmingly Democratic composition of the District.
No matter how small or large the steps are to reform, many D.C. government observers offer cautious claps for the efforts. Many of the provisions in the bill seem like common sense, with many local political insiders arguing it should have been done a long time ago. Ultimately, everyone wants to bring more discipline to elected officials. Perhaps this is the way to do it? We’ll see.