December 18, 2011

THE D.C. COUNCIL is set to take a final vote Tuesday on a comprehensive ethics bill, and the question is whether it will live up to the promise of meaningful reform. The initial draft had unanimous support, but there are efforts, behind the scenes, to make changes. Any move to weaken the measure must be rejected out of hand; indeed, we would urge council members to strengthen the legislation by abolishing constituent service accounts, cracking down on campaign contributions and empowering the council to expel members for misconduct.

Tuesday’s vote will cap a months-long effort to rewrite the city’s ethics rules in response to the series of scandals involving elected officials. The legislation, largely crafted by council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), would establish an independent ethics commission to enforce a toughened code of conduct for public officials and employees. Among the commendable features of the legislation are new financial disclosure requirements, a liberalization of the rules for recalling elected officials, a mandate for timely registration of lobbyist activity and improved ethics training. Ms. Bowser wisely listened to suggestions that minority-party representation on the new ethics panel be required but did not heed our advice to strengthen the selection process.

Since the council’s original vote on Dec. 6, Ms. Bowser has been said to be under pressure from some of her colleagues to backtrack on some of the reforms. Some are said to be unhappy with the relaxed recall rules, and there’s a push to retain the misnamed constituent service accounts. The bill as drafted would cut by 50 percent the amounts that council members could raise for these accounts and bar certain uses. The fiction that these monies, collected from the same donors who make campaign contributions, are used to benefit real people was further undermined with the disclosure that council members were allowed to use the funds to help pay for their annual holiday party. A council serious about reform would recognize the need to abolish the accounts.

Likewise, it’s important that the legislation establish a procedure by which council members guilty of egregious ethical misconduct can be expelled. As the bill is currently written, only a felony conviction would cause the expulsion of a sitting council member or the mayor. That lets the council off the hook — a fact demonstrated by the affront of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s (D-Ward 5) continued tenure.

Finally, we believe there is merit in proposals by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to reduce the influence of pay-to-play in city contracting by outlawing the practice whereby a company sets up subsidiaries to contribute more money than the legal limit for individuals. The Office of Campaign Finance testified that Mr. Wells’s proposal would go a long way in helping it oversee campaign contributions. Mr. Wells also is advancing an idea, worthy of more study, that would ban city contractors from donating to political campaigns.