DC Council’s Ethical Moment of Truth

The views below are mine alone and are not intended to speak for the entire ANC 2F.

While I do not necessarily agree with every single point, Colbert King’s latest column on the dire and growing need for ethical reforms in the Council of the District of Columbia is something that needed to be said.

Ethics—or lack thereof—is at the core of the disintegrating comity, increasing dysfunction and costly distractions that plague the Council.  Nearly half of the entire Council is under an ethical cloud, and two members—Council President Kwame Brown and Council Member Harry Thomas Jr.—are even under federal investigation.  If that weren’t bad enough, most of their Council colleagues have been essentially sotto voce on the subject, stoking public suspicions that corruption is simply par for the course in the John A. Wilson Building.

Of course, not to be outdone, Mayor Vincent Gray faces several troubling allegations of his own.

This is not simply a matter of concluding the pending investigations and answering the unanswered questions.  Everyone agrees on the need for ethics reforms, but unfortunately, far too few voices are speaking up for the sweeping, comprehensive and structural changes that are desperately needed.

I served for almost 15 years in the federal government.  The type of behavior that is countenanced among D.C. officials would get you ridden out of town on a rail in Congress.   A congressional lobbyist can scarcely buy you a cup of coffee without setting off flashing lights and Klaxons.  While public esteem of Congress is at all-time lows, caused in part by various scandals and ethical lapses, the D.C. Council is making Congress look as chaste as Caesar’s wife.

Everyone says that something needs to be done, but I’m concerned that they’re just preparing for yet another kabuki dance.  At a bare minimum, the Council should pass sweeping reforms not only for themselves, but also in the Mayor’s office and District-wide.

For a start, they should eliminate or seriously circumscribe the so-called “Constituent Services Funds,” which in many cases operate as slush funds and mechanisms to confer political favors.  Crack down on nepotism, “pay to play,” procurement abuses.  Implement greater transparency and reporting requirements.

The current, laughable fines and penalties, which Council Member Jack Evans derides as the “cost of doing business,” need to be significantly increased—tenfold or more.  Expulsion should be a very real threat.  Should it really take a criminal conviction to give someone the boot?  The watchdogs should be given teeth, not just “gums,” in Colbert King’s words.

The D.C. Council alone (short of congressional action, which few of us would stomach) has the power to drain the swamp.  Unfortunately, they’re the ones who filled the swamp in the first place.  But if the current trajectory continues, don’t be surprised if the gains the District has made during times of relatively “good government”—economic development, lower crime, fiscal responsibility—aren’t reversed.

They can go a long way toward restoring the public trust by seizing this moment.

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