Washingtonians are rightly dismayed and upset by recent scandals, including Lincoln Navigators and Sulaimon Brown. We should demand the highest standards from leaders. However, we should also beware that righteous indignation can quickly transform into unstoppable pressure for very bad policies.
These revelations in the news are indeed troubling. As one who did support Gray (as a few commenters never tire of pointing out), I too am very disappointed to read them.
Residents and opinion leaders should beware of a natural tendency to want to go after everyone in government with a metaphorical meat cleaver, however. In particular, we should be very skeptical about proposals to restrict the pay of top administration officials or cut the pay of councilmembers.
A great department head can save millions of dollars by managing projects better, hiring more capable staff, and avoiding costly mistakes. In the private sector, a good leader can make very good money. We should rightly condemn paying anyone six-figure salaries if that person isn’t qualified to do a job, but we also shouldn’t hesitate to pay six figures to someone who’ll pay for his or her own salary several times over.
Likewise, there seems to be a growing groundswell to have Councilmembers cut their own pay following revelations that they’re more highly paid than most city legislators. Besides the instant counterargument that the DC Council fills the role of both state and city legislature, the fact is that we want good legislators.
Low pay for legislators just means that only wealthy people can afford to run for office. The average citizen would not run for Council if it meant he couldn’t pay his rent. Nor is part time legislating the answer. The Virginia legislature meets for two months a year and has almost no time to consider bills, leading to many measures being hastily passed or rejected.
Cutting pay is also incompatible with the other, more worthy criticism of the Council that some of its members hold down one or even two other jobs, some of which raise at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. Personally, I’d rather pay our legislators more and expect them to work full time as a result.
After the Metro crash in 2009, many people started criticizing everything related to Metro and everyone in any sort of leadership position, whether or not that person had anything to do with the crash or had made any mistakes at all.
In blog comment threads, people called for drastic and unrealistic measures from putting all Board members in jail to complete federal takeovers. That last option wasn’t just confined to blogs but emerged from the mouths of United States Senators, some of whom now want to cut all the funding to the agency.
The angry mob approach may generate fun Twitter threads and raise traffic for area media outlets but never leads to good policy.
That’s the real danger in these scandals. There’s some actual harm that comes from having an ill-advised car or hiring someone inappropriately. There’s far more in the loss of confidence in our institutions that can result, and the hasty decisions leaders might make when they’re more concerned with looking good in the political columns.