Photo by imgoph on Flickr.
When candidates for the at-large DC Council seat were quizzed on amending DC’s Home Rule Charter at a Tuesday night forum, some local journalists deemed their answers unsatisfactory. However, Patrick Mara, Bryan Weaver, and Sekou Biddle all gave some variation on an answer that deserves much more credit: Enlarge the DC Council.
After the Pew Charitable Trust released a report in February showing that District Council members were among the highest paid city legislators, some citizens reacted with outrage, demanding that their salaries be cut.
Members noted that they work long hours and are stretched thin between policy and constituent service roles. They also pointed out that the DC Council fills city, county, and state legislative and oversight roles, which makes it unique compared to other city legislatures. Given these factors, it seems natural to consider increasing the size of the DC Council.
An expanded Council could be beneficial in a number of ways. It would be more able to fulfill its state-like duties, while increasing the number of powerful advocates for under-served communities. It could blunt damage caused by ineffective council members.
Additionally, a larger Council would provide more opportunities for younger, less “politically connected” and more ideologically unique candidates to have their voices heard. And, it would increase the pool of qualified and viable candidates for citywide office (Mayor, Council Chair, Attorney General).
Shortly after the Pew report was released, Mike DeBonis wrote a piece for the Washington Post asking if DC was over-governed or under-governed. He argued that “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.”
He went on to argue that such low barriers might result in the District “throwing legislative darts against the wall.” A larger council could make legislation harder to pass, and result in a more focused legislative output.
The number of DC Council members is on par with American cities of similar size. However, other cities are also served by state senators and representatives. For example, in addition to Baltimore’s 15 member city council, the city has 6 state senators and 18 state representatives advocating for its interests in Annapolis.
But the DC Council would not have to grow to the size of a normal state legislature in order to provide the city with a number of elected representatives more in line with its size and scope.
In a post on this topic from February, Richard Layman outlines a reasonable expansion plan which would have each ward electing two council members, with eight more plus an elected chairman being chosen on an at-large basis. A 25-member council would provide the benefits of a larger body, while avoiding the bloated size of some state legislatures.
Currently, every member of the DC Council serves as a committee chair. This situation is ripe for abuse and one or two ineffective members can cause major problems. A larger council would allow the most effective legislators to serve in leadership roles, while limiting the power of inexperienced or ineffective members.
A larger council would also have a positive impact on constituent services. Under the current system, a ward can be completely left behind if a council member neglects the needs of their constituents. If two council members are elected from each ward, residents will have more options when they need assistance and the negative effects of incompetent leadership will be reduced.
Currently, a common complaint from independents in DC is that Democrats hold too much power. If combined with other reforms, a larger council could provide alternative parties or less politically connected candidates with a legitimate chance to win seats. This could be accomplished with some form of Instant Runoff or Approval Voting. Both ward seats should be up for election in the same year, with the top two finishers securing seats on the Council.
Hypothetically, if this change were applied retroactively to 2010 the council would include a member of the Statehood Green party, an Independent, and two Republicans.
A greater variety of candidates and council members would also provide for a deeper pool of qualified candidates for citywide office. By the end of the 2010 race for Council Chair many voters felt as though they were deciding between the lesser of two evils. There were few local politicians positioned to take on the weak field.
If the DC Council was twice its current size, and included eight At-Large members accustomed to running city wide campaigns, it is likely that more than one would have had the ambition and ability to win a city wide race for Council Chair.
It seems as though the city of Washington would benefit from having more elected representatives to tackle the unique challenges faced by its Council. I hope that if Mr. Mara, Mr. Weaver, or Mr. Biddle wins the election on April 26, they will continue to talk about this issue and advocate for an expanded council among their new colleagues.