DC Should Become Bicameral, ANCs to Become DC House of Representatives
Former DC Mayor and Ward 7 Councilor Vincent Gray's public anger with Chairman Phil Mendelson's committee reorganization plan highlights a more serious issue with governance in the District. According to the Post, Mendelson claimed that Gray's health "interfered with (Gray's) capacity to manage the Health Committee’s robust workload." Gray contends that use of his health status following a stroke inaccurately and unlawfully mischaracterizes his capacity. Mendelson's concern about the demands of the committee "workload" reflects the acute crisis in Council governance. There is insufficient oversight of the Executive because the District has too few elected officials in its legislative body. As the Gray-Mendelson drama illustrates, the personal health challenges of a single Council member can expose major cracks in an already broken system. The situation is at crisis level with Mendelson declaring in an August 2022 tweet that, "This also speaks to a wider problem of the Executive not following the law." Mendelson diagnosed only part of the problem.
The District has a $19.5 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which is comparable in size to New Mexico and Indiana. The District, however, does not have the legislative capacity to account for public spending, much less ensure that all agencies comply with the law. Both the Indiana and New Mexico state legislatures are bicameral, meaning a state Senate and House, and include 150 and 112 seats, respectively. The District has a measly 13 members of its legislative body to provide oversight of tens of billions of dollars for over 80 District agencies. Committee oversight is often lax. Major public crises as with the DC Housing Authority often precipitate agency reform. Allegations against former DCHA Board chair Neil Albert set in motion a HUD investigation and the most recent DCHA Board reform bill.
The crisis of governance is underreported in mainstream local media, which we attribute to a lack of a truly independent press. This paper has previously reported that the District went 20 years (1992-2008 and 2010-2022) without publishing election results in the DC Register, a legal requirement. It only did so at the prompting of a Southwest resident. When DC Council amended the Comprehensive Plan in 2021, it did not require the District to supply an impact assessment. Our December issue discussed, "The District did not conduct impact assessments in 2013 and 2017 as legally required to do. The 2021 impact assessment was vastly incomplete. The last impact assessment was in 2006." Several cases are in litigation based upon these legal violations.
The District vacillates from crisis to crisis based upon what stories garner public attention. Several city agencies are currently in the spotlight - DC Housing Authority, Department of Forensic Sciences, Department of General Services, and the defunct Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). DCRA was recently split into two separate agencies. Declaring in 2018, Mendelson derided, "It has become abundantly clear that DCRA is an agency in need of major change." In 2021, the DC Office of Inspector General in 2021 reported that the District misspent nearly $82 million of affordable-housing funds earmarked for extremely low-income residents. Other agencies, not yet under public scrutiny, have brewing crises involving misspending of federal and state funding, poor accounting practices, and indications of poor standards.
A recently hired District employee described his experience, "When I was hired, I elected health and dental benefits. When I reached the last screen called the "summary page," there was no summary of my elections. There was a submit button, which I clicked. Out of precaution, I emailed DC Human Resources to explain what I saw. I received no response. I realized nearly two months later that the system showed that I did not elect a health plan, which was not true. When I spoke with employees in the DC HR office, two mentioned that this issue is known. Despite being a public employee, I had no health insurance during the early months on my tenure."
The lack of Council capacity and oversight of District agencies can explain this individual's experiences. Knowing that Council infrequently exercises its full authority may incentivize malfeasance, poor agency performance, and unlawful practices. The Office of the DC Auditor and Office of the Inspector General are shouldering the burden for oversight of the Executive, issuing at least a dozen reports for the last several years.
On the issues of social and racial equity, the District's lack of progress in narrowing the racial divides in health, income, skills, and education require a radical reform in its structure. The state of government has become highly undemocratic with a shadow government of public officials and developers setting policy, resistant to reform, and apt to corruption. Even after HUD issued a damning report of DCHA, the Council proceeded in December with changing the DCHA Board despite citywide opposition that this change would increase mayoral control. HUD had particular concerns about the lack of independence of DCHA due to mayoral appointments. The people of the District of Columbia deserve a government that is more responsive and accountable. Threatened by displacement and stagnant wages, African American residents are disproportionately harmed by errant policies. It is worth noting that it is not for the lack of racial representation in government since African Americans hold an overwhelming number of the city's most prominent public positions.
Congress should change the District's Home Rule charter to add a DC Senate and House of Representatives with a bicameral legislative body. This would relieve Council of the immense and impossible set of challenges to ensure the rule of law, public accountability, and government effectiveness. More oversight committees translate to better government. A lower house means that government comes closer to the people. Officially, Congress is the ultimate legislature for the District, as spelled out in the Home Rule Act. At least until recently, it has infrequently intervened in its internal affairs. House Republicans are likely to take more interest in the District.
Bicameralism is a centuries-long American tradition at federal and state levels. "The decision by the Framers of the Constitution to create a bicameral legislature was not based solely on their notion of what would constitute a good law-making body; it was also based on practical political considerations. The Framers reasoned that a two-chamber legislature provided a significant benefit: the means of checking and controlling possible abuses of legislative power. By dividing power, the Framers believed they had created, as Madison noted, two "different bodies of men (and women) who might watch and check each other." (house.gov). All US states, except Nebraska, have a bicameral legislature.
Proposal for District Legislative Body
DC Senate - Include current council positions (13) and add 20-30 District Senators. All current Council positions will expire, meaning no grandfathering.
DC House - There are roughly 300 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. The "lower house" should be based on this structure with single member districts (SMDs). 300 SMDs is likely too many, so it would be beneficial to pare down by half. ANCs predate the Home Rule Act of 1973 and has shown to work well. However, ANCs are subsumed under the Executive branch, which has threatened their independence and influence.