The Blog

D.C. Politics Is Broken

In local District of Columbia politics, an essentially one-party system with few checks and balances and no ethics guidelines have yielded a city government that is rotten at its core.
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Pundits, activists and even elected officials from around the country have described our political system as broken. While our branches of government and two-party system were designed to include checks and balances, many Americans feel that something has gone terribly wrong. A popular belief is that corporate interests and a few wealthy and powerful individuals have hijacked a system originally meant to serve the needs of the many. In local District of Columbia politics, the problem is even worse. An essentially one-party system with few checks and balances and no ethics guidelines have yielded a city government that is rotten at its core.

Every day we read about the ongoing investigations of our local politicians. While it is important for voters to understand the underhanded and corrupt practices plaguing the District, mainstream media outlets focus on symptoms and ignore the fact that this city has a system that is malfunctioning and is in need of sweeping reform. Unfortunately, the only way to bring reform would be through the actions of our elected officials who have become part of the problem. Such reform is unlikely to happen without intense outrage and public activism. We need a local government that works for the people again, and here are some ideas I have heard from D.C. residents:

Introduce term limits. In order to solve the multiple crises facing society today, we need BIG ideas. We need creative thinking. We need leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own popularity to do what is right. We have a representative democracy because we expect leaders to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, those decisions may not always be politically expedient or may run afoul of powerful special interests. In a one-party town like D.C., this problem is magnified because there is rarely a counterbalancing challenger with organized backing. Two states that currently use term limits, while far from perfect, are seen as models within certain circles. California is the national leader in progressive policy. That state was the first to ban smoking in restaurants, the first to legalize medical marijuana, and a leader in developing strict environmental standards. Virginia is often ranked as one of the best places for business with its streamlined regulatory system and low taxes. Regardless of ideology, politicians in each state can take risks without worrying about revenge from special interests. The D.C. Council is full of career politicians, not real leaders. Let's change that by developing a system that encourages fresh thinking and new ideas.

Institute binding ballot initiatives. The District currently has a system for residents to place potential laws on the ballot for a citywide vote, but the Council can still repeal those initiatives. Such a system severely limits the ability of local citizens to be heard when they feel strongly that elected leaders are no longer speaking for them. The ethics reform agenda proposed by Tommy Wells is essentially dead on arrival because no other Council members want to give up their power or access to funds. If these reforms were part of a ballot initiative, I assure you they would pass. Term limits were actually passed in a ballot initiative a few years ago, but in a slap in the face to their constituents, Council members repealed it.

Implement public election financing. I am a big fan of the European model of funding campaigns. Instead of having corporations and unions bundle unlimited, and now thanks to Citizens United, undisclosed funds to political candidates, we should provide candidates access to funds through public financing and allow the political battles to be waged over ideas, not over fundraising. In D.C., incumbents will always have the advantage because special interests will fund their campaigns. With a system like that, how will we ever see change? While we shouldn't outlaw individual campaign contributions, we can even the playing field and provide challengers with access to public funds.

Ban constituent service funds. Constituent service funds are nothing more than political slush funds. While they were touted as a method for elected officials to help constituents pay their utility bills or to get them to their next pay check, the funds are a legal way to buy votes and for special interests to gain access. How else can you explain Jack Evans using his fund to buy sports tickets for his supporters? If people are in need, and there are plenty in the District who are, let's use city agencies to help them and not turn earmarked funds into political giveaways.

Empower Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. ANCs have very little real power at the policy level, but they yield significant political influence. Yes, it feels good to think that our neighborhoods have a voice through their ANCs; however, this is a myth since ANCs yield no actual policymaking power. What ANCs have done is create a system of patronage where Council members can do political or personal favors for ANC commissioners in return for their help at election time. The ANC structure gives Council members the ability to take neighborhood activists and turn them into political operatives. This is no way to run a city. If ANCs are to be a true voice for residents, the structure should be reversed, and ANCs should be given real teeth to make binding decisions for their neighborhood. This will generate greater voter interest in their ANCs, and provide a more grassroots approach to governing.

I intentionally did not go into extensive detail about the ideas above. My goal is to encourage public debate about them. If we want term limits, how many terms should be limited? Should the Mayor and Council have different limits? How would public campaign financing be structured? Is there a better alternative to the ANC? Maybe there are better ideas than anything I have presented. I have heard other ideas deserving consideration, such as requiring Council members to work full-time to reduce conflict of interest, or even to work part-time and reducing salaries to a stipend, thus preventing the trend of career politicians. These are discussions for the 99% to debate, not for me to dictate. Let the public conversation begin!