Photo from the DC Council.

The draft ethics bill under consideration by the DC Council takes steps to limit the use of Constituent Service Funds. The Government Operations Committee should take a bold step and abolish the funds altogether when they report a final bill.

Analysis conducted by DC for Democracy makes this painfully clear. DC for Democracy found that very little money raised for CSFs went to needy constituents. More often, funds were spent on “other”, a category that includes catering, local travel, and event tickets.

The draft ethics bill addresses this abuse of Constituent Service Funds by cutting the maximum amount Councilmembers may raise, from $80,000 to $40,000. This limit would bring the funds back in line with their size prior to 2009, when the council upped their limit to $80,000.

This new limit is simply window dressing to make what are essentially slush funds more palatable to the public.  Either CSF’s make sense or they don’t. And the proposed cut to their size is a tacit admission that they don’t.

Additionally, only 5 of the 13 Councilmembers raised more than $40,000 for their Constituent Service Funds last year, and 4 of them raised between $40,000 and $50,000.  Only Jack Evans, who raised $85,000, would be really effected by the new limit. 

The draft ethics bill further limits the use of Constituent Service Funds by defining more narrowly what they can be spent on.  The loopholes, however, are obvious for all to see.  They can’t be spent on season tickets to sports events, but they can be spent on individual game tickets.  They can’t be spent to promote a Councilmember, but they can be spent on community events sponsored by the Councilmember.

In 2010 only three sitting Council members spent 25% or more of their CSF’s on constituent needs (Vince Gray spent 28% on constituent needs before being elected mayor). Conversely, 6 Council members spent more than 60% of their funds on the “other” category. If these numbers were reversed, there still wouldn’t be enough CSF money going to needy District residents.

At the end of the day, the amount spent by Councilmembers meeting the daily needs of constituents through these funds ($48,271) is a tiny drop in the bucket relative to the needs of a city in which 30% of children live in poverty.  Instead of giving needy constituents crumbs from their table of wealthy donors, Councilmembers should address the root causes of poverty and unemployment that create these needs in the first place.

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Matt Rumsey moved to D.C in 2005 to pursue a degree in History at American University. Originally from Connecticut, he has had no intention of leaving D.C. since he moved to Columbia Heights in the summer of 2008. He now lives in Ward 5. He currently works at The Sunlight Foundation. Views here are his own.