Washington Post: “Is DC Overgoverned or Undergoverned”

Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 9:00 PM

By the numbers, the District should have one of the finest big-city governments in all the land.

The Pew Charitable Trust released a report Wednesday that compared the compensation of big-city legislators and the relative funding of their legislatures.

By both measures, the D.C. Council does pretty darn well. Members’ average salary of $130,538 is good enough for second place among the 15 big cities surveyed; only Los Angeles pays its members more, $178,000 on average. And the District far outstrips the competition on legislative spending – more than $32 per capita.

But are District residents getting the good government they’re paying handsomely for?

Concern is hard to find in the John A. Wilson Building, where council members are quick to point out that the District isn’t just another city like Pittsburgh or Phoenix; it assumes functions managed by states and counties in other places.

The report contains some support for that argument, noting that when the council budget is considered as a percentage of the city budget, it compares favorably – only New York, Boston and Houston spend less than the 0.32 percent that the District spends.

That argument, however, helps expose the special problem of legislating in the District, which happens to be overgoverned and undergoverned at the same time.

Here’s why it might be undergoverned: With a 13-member council doing the lawmaking done by much larger bicameral assemblies in 49 states, the barriers to legislating are lower in the District than anywhere in the nation. In less populous Wyoming, for instance, passing a law means convincing majorities in a 60-seat House and 30-seat Senate.

But in the District, "you can do anything if you have seven votes," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a defender of council prerogatives but also a frequent critic of the body’s overreach.

That goes not only for the stuff of municipal ordinances – say, noise laws – but also for the stuff of state oversight – say, pharmaceutical sales regulations. There lies part of why the city has been a leader in recent years on issues such as gay marriage and taxing disposable bags that have been stymied in other, similarly liberal legislatures (ahem, Maryland).

Does the city’s compact council mean more efficient government? Or an incentive to throw legislative darts against a wall? According to a State Net analysis, the District processed about 1,400 bills last year. Wisconsin, with nearly 10 times the population, dealt with half as many.

Which helps explain why it might be overgoverned: For all of its statelike aspirations, the District doesn’t legislate like a state. In most states, including Maryland and Virginia, lawmakers are part-timers who come to the capital for discrete sessions of a few months. In the District, council-membering is a 10-month-a-year job (minus summer break, of course).

It doesn’t help that the D.C. Council is just down the street from Congress. In taking their cues, municipal lawmakers and officials are more likely to look the 14 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue than to the statehouses or city halls around the country.

D.C. Council committees, like congressional committees, are well-staffed, with an eye toward fine-grained oversight of executive departments. Each council member gets more than $400,000 to hire a staff, and those who chair committees get to double that allowance.

Under ChairmanVincent C. Gray, now the mayor, the council’s budget expanded as the rest of the city budget shrank, as Gray (D) attempted to "build capacity." He opened, for instance, a policy analysis office – a local analog of the Congressional Research Service.

And, like members of Congress, District lawmakers stay in session all year and get paid handsomely for it. But D.C. lawmakers try to have it both ways – adopting the trappings and high salaries of Congress while allowing the outside employment of the "citizen legislatures" of the states. That tends to undercut the argument that the high workloads and close attention demanded by a deep-tentacled District government justify the high pay.

Evans and D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), for instance, are employed by prominent law and lobbying firms. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is a law professor at George Washington University. David A. Catania (I-At Large) is general counsel for a Virginia tech firm – one with ties to a major city contractor. Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), as an at-large member, did consulting work for two federal government contractors.

The public, however, likes to see more public-mindedness in its public servants. A wholly unscientific poll on washingtonpost.com found that 70 percent of respondents, as of Thursday afternoon, thought that six digits were one too many for a council salary.

So as they tuck into a budget gap that could reach $600 million, D.C. Council members might ask themselves: Are we worth it?

Kevin Wrege

Founder & President

Pulse Issues & Advocacy LLC

kwrege

Office: 202-625-1787

Mobile: 202-253-4929

4410 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #150

Washington, DC 20016

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