Photo by (Alex) on Flickr.
Tuesday marked just how serious the DC Council is about ethics reform. I am sad to report that they are not very serious at all.
Like all besieged governments across the globe that have held power with an insular, corruptible and outdated system, the Council of the District of Columbia is now offering concessions in the hope of easing the unprecedented anger at this crisis.
They have established a process to remove a member, set up an ethics panel, slashed how much money councilmembers can raise to help “constituents,” and required stricter reporting of outside income and potential conflicts.
But ultimately the Council has only responded narrowly to several questions raised this year concerning the alleged actions of some city leaders and government staffers.
Some highlights include requiring councilmembers to file an annual affidavit in which they certify they paid all of their taxes and have not “been offered or accepted any bribes” or engaged in any “pay to play schemes.” Really?
In the words of the teenagers I work with: “C’mon Son!!!”
The law fails to address or enact any real protections against “pay-to-play.”
On November 30, Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) introduced two amendments to the bill. The first amendment would close a loophole that allows corporations to give numerous campaign contributions through subsidiary Limited Liability Corporations (LLC). Wells’ amendment would limit corporations to just one contribution.
The second amendment banned companies with city contracts from giving directly to political campaigns, because councilmembers often vote on contracts for those same companies.
The Council rejected each of Wells’ amendments by 12 to 1 votes. Wells seemed to have support from Cecily Collier-Montgomery, director of the Office of Campaign Finance, who said, “It certainly would make it a lot easier to enforce in terms of corporations and subsidiaries sharing a single contribution limit.
William Sanford, General Counsel of OCF went further, saying, “We agree that bundling should be prohibited and perhaps it could be more specifically addressed in this or other legislation.”
Even Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) openly stated during debate that every time a councilmember takes a check from a corporation, there is a string attached. Astutely, Mr. Graham has touched the heart of “Pay to Play.”
When it became obvious that no other member of the council was was willing to ban subsidiary corporations from giving multiple contributions, Wells regrouped and offered a compromise for the final vote on December 20. He proposed sunlight provisions that would require LLCs to disclose their controlling interest, and require corporations with contracts with the city to disclose those contracts when contributing to local political campaigns.
Every councilmember talks about the importance of disclosure, transparency and sunlight, making this an obvious compromise. Don’t ban a corporation’s ability to bundle, just make the disclosure more transparent. As a friend of mine likes to say about the DC Council, “It’s all about getting to 7 votes.”
One would think this a no-brainer. Wells’ office went back to Sanford, the OCF General Counsel, to ask for advice. He responded by saying, “The language you have suggested appears to require clarification of the relationship between subsidiaries and parent corporations which may have controlling interest. Therefore, from an enforcement standpoint it would result in a greater degree of transparency.”
Armed with support of OCF and a willingness of the Council to create stronger “open government” laws, Wells brought his two sunshine amendments to the floor. Each amendment still fell 12 to 1.
And with that, the council punted on a golden opportunity to show the residents of DC that they are serious about ethics, committed to ridding our government of the corrupting influence of money, and that DC will no longer be the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows.
It is heartbreaking that in the capital city of the world’s greatest democracy, the effort for transparency and accountability — values that people are giving life and limb for around the world — would fail so miserably and so anticlimactically.
Big money diminishes accountability, transparency and inclusiveness in our government. It determines who runs for office and where those candidates stand on the issues.
Money should not determine how our elected officials spend their time in the Wilson Building. Issues facing the city should do that. Problems facing the residents should come first.
The DC Council would do well in recognizing they still have some serious work to do if they are going to be taken seriously by voters.