Time to pay D.C.’s ‘shadow’ delegation?

This billboard, posted near last year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, was funded by taxpayers. (Nate Bennett-Fleming)

After more than four years of austerity, the District government finally has some money to spend. While Mayor Vincent C. Gray is talking about affordable housing and community nonprofits, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange wants the city to get serious about its fight for voting rights and statehood.

To that end, Orange has introduced a bill that would for the first time pay the three elected officials comprising the city’s “shadow” delegation to Congress. The “representative” and two “senators” have toiled for statehood without remuneration since 1991.

Orange’s bill would pay each official a stipend of $35,000, plus a $75,000 staff allowance and a $75,000 programming allowance. The D.C. Council would get an additional grant of $550,000 for marketing and communications efforts in support of District self-determination issues, bringing the total price tag for the bill to $1.1 million yearly.

“It’s like anything else: Put your money where your mouth is,” Orange said. “Make the investment.”

The half-million dollars Orange would give the council for voting-rights efforts would eclipse the $200,000 that the city currently offers in yearly grants for self-determination efforts.

One veteran statehood activist, John Capozzi, said any money should go solely to the shadow delegation rather than leaving it to the council to spend. “The council doesn’t need to pass legislation to spend money to advocate for statehood,” he said. “They can just do it.”

Not surprisingly, at least one member of the shadow delegation welcomes the possibility that they might see some real money devoted to their cause. Currently, the shadow delegation is entitled to the proceeds of the Statehood Delegation Fund, which is filled via a check-off on income tax forms.

Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown (D), who has been in the job since 2007, says the fund has been paltry, so Orange’s bill would help him and “shadow” colleagues Paul Strauss and Nathan Bennett-Fleming do their jobs. “Something’s better than nothing,” Brown said. “We certainly need this money and more. This is very exciting.”

However, with real money comes real responsibility. If handed significant taxpayer funds, the shadow delegation would likely find itself under closer scrutiny than it has seen in two decades.

Brown says he’s ready: “I do this full time. I think I can live up to the expectations put on me.” If the public decides his efforts aren’t up to snuff, he said, “I can always find another really good volunteer position.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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