Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 9:00 PM

By the numbers, the District should have one of the finest big-city governments in all the land.

The Pew Charitable Trust released a report Wednesday that compared the compensation of big-city legislators and the relative funding of their legislatures.

By both measures, the D.C. Council does pretty darn well. Members' average salary of $130,538 is good enough for second place among the 15 big cities surveyed; only Los Angeles pays its members more, $178,000 on average. And the District far outstrips the competition on legislative spending - more than $32 per capita.

But are District residents getting the good government they're paying handsomely for?

Concern is hard to find in the John A. Wilson Building, where council members are quick to point out that the District isn't just another city like Pittsburgh or Phoenix; it assumes functions managed by states and counties in other places.

The report contains some support for that argument, noting that when the council budget is considered as a percentage of the city budget, it compares favorably - only New York, Boston and Houston spend less than the 0.32 percent that the District spends.

That argument, however, helps expose the special problem of legislating in the District, which happens to be overgoverned and undergoverned at the same time.

Here's why it might be undergoverned: 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. In less populous Wyoming, for instance, passing a law means convincing majorities in a 60-seat House and 30-seat Senate.

But in the District, "you can do anything if you have seven votes," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a defender of council prerogatives but also a frequent critic of the body's overreach.

That goes not only for the stuff of municipal ordinances - say, noise laws - but also for the stuff of state oversight - say, pharmaceutical sales regulations. There lies part of why the city has been a leader in recent years on issues such as gay marriage and taxing disposable bags that have been stymied in other, similarly liberal legislatures (ahem, Maryland).

Does the city's compact council mean more efficient government? Or an incentive to throw legislative darts against a wall? According to a State Net analysis, the District processed about 1,400 bills last year. Wisconsin, with nearly 10 times the population, dealt with half as many.

Which helps explain why it might be overgoverned: For all of its statelike aspirations, the District doesn't legislate like a state. In most states, including Maryland and Virginia, lawmakers are part-timers who come to the capital for discrete sessions of a few months. In the District, council-membering is a 10-month-a-year job (minus summer break, of course).

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