November 28, 2011

AS THE DISTRICT’S government has sunk into an ethical malaise, existing agencies have failed to establish or enforce clear rules of conduct. The failure is so abject that it’s time to declare the system beyond repair. That conclusion lies at the heart of a proposal for ethics reform in D.C. government that, while by no means perfect, represents a serious effort in the right direction.

A public roundtable will be held Wednesday on comprehensive ethics legislation drafted by D.C. Council Member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who heads the committee on government operations. The bill would establish an independent ethics commission that would be split off from the Board of Elections and Ethics. The new body would be given jurisdiction over a toughened code of ethics and would be empowered to conduct investigations and impose penalties. Unlike an earlier proposal considered by the council (which we opposed), this commission would have real teeth.

We admit to some skepticism about creating a government agency to do a job neglected by others. Why not just fix the Office of Campaign Finance or diagnose why the Office of the Inspector General has taken a milquetoast approach to its watchdog role? But given all the scandals that have marred this government, it is clear the city can no longer tinker with its bureaucracy; a clean break is needed. Moreover, in other states and cities, boards with primary jurisdiction over the conduct of public officials, as proposed by Ms. Bowser, have proven effective. The most successful ethics boards do more than react to scandal; they pay attention to training, advising and implementing best practices.

The success of any board would depend on who is appointed and what resources it has. Given the failures of the inspector general and the Office of Campaign Finance, it makes sense to redirect funds from those offices instead of just adding to the cost of government. We would also urge the council to strengthen how board members are selected; instead of allowing the mayor to appoint with the advice of the council, it should create nominating committees similar to those used in selecting judges. The mayor would still appoint but only from a list recruited and vetted by distinguished citizens. We wonder also if there should be more than three members and if three-year terms are long enough to ensure independence.

There are other places Ms. Bowser’s bill can be improved. She would limit constituent service accounts; why not just get rid of these ill-advised slush funds? The council should give itself the power to expel members who flagrantly violate ethics codes. It shouldn’t be possible to hide hearings of ethical violations from the public. Violators should have to pay penalties themselves, without relying on campaign funds.

No one piece of legislation will be able to cure all the ethical issues that have plagued the District. But the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Establishment and Ethics Reform Act of 2011 would create a mechanism with a chance of making a difference.