DC Council Committees: Power Struggle and Chaos

The District Beat – January 2017


The DC Council’s new committee structure could mean Mayor Muriel Bowser’s next two years will be as challenging as the last two – except she won’t have several allies to help soften the blow of an increasingly emboldened legislature filled with deep-blue progressives and antagonists, chiefly her predecessor Vincent C. Gray. “One thing is certain, the mayor is going to have a hard time,” said Greg Rhett, a Ward 7 resident active in local politics and civic affairs. “The [council voting] bloc that’s sprouting up has more muscle than before.”

Complicating that is the fact that the mayor and seven legislators are expected to launch reelection bids. Therefore, the committees will morph into campaign platforms replete with posturing and rhetorical flourishes designed to please constituents and raise money. Consider that the council’s Committee on Economic Development has been the consistent foot-stool for politicians looking to advance their careers: Kwame Brown parlayed it to the job of chairman of the council. Bowser used it to ride into the mayoral suite. Even before he was assigned economic development, some observers had suggested Kenyan McDuffie would be a mayoral contender in 2018.  That means the field of candidates already is crowded with the prospect of DC Attorney General Karl Racine adding his name. All of this simply means that Council Period 22 will be all politics, all the time.

Ed Lazere, head of the nonprofit DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said it’s not in the interest of either the executive or the legislature to be fighting all the time, especially considering the changes caused by the federal government that could hit the city. “If the mayor wants to succeed, “it’s in her interest to build new relationships.”

Achieving that goal is more than a notion, however. During Council Period 21, key progressives like Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6’s Charles Allen, and At-large Elissa Silverman didn’t chair any standing committees. Still, they created headaches for the executive, although they were unable to inflict permanent damage. Bowser often had a six-pack of members who could help drive her agenda.

That changed with the November general election. The pro-Bowser force dwindled to three. Now Chair Phil Mendelson has exacerbated the mayor’s wound. (He probably wouldn’t share that assessment.)

The progressives are not just at the door; they are in charge of the house and have sway over key areas Bowser may have hoped to deploy as springboards into a second term. Consider that At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman controls the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. That includes the Department of Employment Services and the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity. Bowser won’t be able to pass around money through contracts and jobs to gain support from residents and businesses. Silverman, considered by many to be expert in workforce development issues, will demand accountability and measurable outcomes. She has challenged the mayor over expansion of the summer job’s program, demanding an evaluation and requiring the executive to ensure full-time employment for a select number of enrollees. Further, Silverman led the fight for universal paid leave, which the Council passed last month. Bowser opposed the bill and pledged not to sign it.

Gray has jurisdiction over the Committee on Health. He is expected to advocate, once again, for a public hospital east of the Anacostia River, in Ward 7 or Ward 8. When Bowser was on the Council she opposed a similar proposal offered by then-mayor Gray. Since he continues to believe he was cheated out of a second mayoral term, Gray is expected to be the proverbial thorn in the side. “Things are going to be very interesting,” said Rhett. “When we go into the budget season that’s when we really will know who’s got the juice.”

Public Frustration 
Bowser isn’t the only one expected to catch heat, however. Some business owners, residents, and advocates acknowledge a slight improvement in the committee structure – from eight to 11 standing committees, including the Committee of the Whole. But many I spoke with remain unhappy with the organization Mendelson has crafted for Council Period 22. They complained that some committees are not properly aligned with their mission and the agencies under their purview; some remain too large; and still others lack knowledgeable personnel. Those issues create problems associated with transparency and effective and efficient oversight.

“Committees should be in the hands of people who have experience and passion about the area over which they have jurisdiction,” said Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shaw.

“We would be better off if the Council placed a higher priority on oversight and better off if the subject areas were more keenly defined,” said long-time DC-based political consultant Tom Lindenfeld.

Dorothy Brizill, head of the good government group DC Watch, agreed but asserted that ultimately the current committees aren’t “set up to do the oversight that is needed.” She cited as problematic the composition of the Committee on the Judiciary, under which Mendelson has placed at least 36 agencies and commissions. She raised questions about whether Business and Economic Development, headed by Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, has staff with the knowledge to conduct dive-deep oversight.

Mendelson also has permitted some councilmembers to continue chairing committees despite what some characterized as “poor performance.” Consider that several people interviewed for this article rated the chair of the Education Committee, At-large David Grosso, mediocre. “I haven’t been overly impressed,” said Padro, whose Shaw community has been fighting for the modernization and opening of Shaw Middle School. Grosso “has done an okay job. I’d like to see someone more effective. Maybe Phil [Mendelson] was right when he wanted education to be part of the Committee of the Whole.”

Then there is the Department of General Services (DGS), a behemoth agency charged with, among other things, managing the city’s real estate holdings and school modernization. As chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh had jurisdiction over the DGS. By most assessments her oversight of DGS was inadequate. The agency mismanaged school modernization funds, according to the city auditor. More recently there were allegations two top-level employees changed the procurement scoring system without approval from either the mayor or the Council.

“The primary function of the committee is oversight, not creating new legislation,” said Brizill. The emphasis on introducing legislation is not likely to change during an election season, however.

Strapped and Dissatisfied
“The quality of oversight always depends on the quality of the committee,” said Mendelson, during an interview with the District Beat in which he explained and defended his decisions.

Interestingly, not only does Mendelson recommend the chair for each committee, he also determines which councilmember sits as a member of which committee. If anyone has control over the quality of a committee it is Mendelson. Adding credence to that observation, he told me that he broke up some of the previously large committees to “allow for better focus.”For example, he split the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, giving McDuffie one half and Silverman the other. Mendelson said creating a separate business development committee could provide relief for businesses. Last month he called for a moratorium on new business-related legislation.

Mendelson also divided the former Committee on Health and Human Services. Gray got control of health, although technically he is a freshman; Mendelson’s edict has been that freshman legislators don’t get to chair committees. “Everybody got what they wanted,” Mendelson said.

Actually, neither Robert White nor Trayon White was assigned a committee. “My belief is that a body as small as the District Council with oversight over 100 agencies and commissions needs every member to have a committee so we can reach down into every agency,” said Robert White, adding that he had discussed with Mendelson his “desire to chair a committee” and noting his years of conducting government oversight in previous roles.

The failure to assign each of the two Whites a committee means that 50 percent of the black male council members are without chairmanships. Also putting Trayon White on the sidelines translates into more than four years that a representative from Ward 8 would not have chaired a committee. Chairmanships are important commodities. Not only do they provide council members an opportunity to develop a level of expertise, they also provide resources that could be traded to secure better outcomes for their constituents. During the budget process, for example, chairs often move money between their committees to ensure funding of pet projects. Neither Robert White nor Trayon White will wield that political clout and influence.

Speaking through his spokesperson, Mendelson reiterated his position that it “takes some time for new council members to get up to speed.” He also argued that “east of the river has a chairmanship with Vincent Gray.”

Wards 7 and 8 are both east of the Anacostia River. They are two different communities, with different demographics and needs, however.

“Trayon White has thus far been very impressive,” Mendelson continued, “and I will be helpful and responsive to his requests. I will do all I can when he asks.”

The problems didn’t stop there, however. Government sources said Ward 6’s Charles Allen had lobbied for the Committee on Health. Instead he was saddled with the Committee on the Judiciary. Initially Mendelson had sought to keep McDuffie as chairman of that committee. Mendelson said he even asked McDuffie to serve “as a favor to me.” McDuffie still refused, choosing business development instead. McDuffie had thought DGS would come along with that committee, but it didn’t. When the Council met last month for its administrative meeting, where the committee assignments were first recommended, McDuffie was visually unhappy. Later, he was given the Committee on Business and Economic Development. While DGS wasn’t part of that configuration, he won control over the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, a broad and lucrative terrain.

When reached by telephone earlier this month, McDuffie, said after the initial assignments were made “as is customary there was continuing discussion. Ultimately I am pleased with the committee I have.”

Allen acknowledged in an interview with District Beat that he hadn’t expected to be assigned judiciary and public safety. “I got my hands around it really fast, [however].  This is a really important committee; it touches people’s lives every single day. The committee has a lot of challenges; it is dealing with some of the toughest stuff in the city.”

The Judiciary Committee has under its purview fire and emergency services, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of Campaign Finance, among others. Allen has gone from no committee to one of the largest and most significant. Further, as chairman, he now has a bulls-eye on his back for the next two years, particularly since there has been a measurable uptick in crime in his Ward 6. “This committee comes with expectations and I am going to be working hard to meet them,” he continued.

Don’t expect him to focus only crime and punishment in the traditional sense.  Allen said high on his list of priorities will be preventing government corruption and improving government ethics. “You’re talking to someone who didn’t take a single dime from a corporation in my campaign. No PAC [political action committee and no corporation,” he continued. That experience, he said, makes him the right person to push for campaign finance changes. “It’s something I care a lot about.”

He will advocate for strong legislation to prevent pay-to-play, which could mean contractors doing business with the city may not be able to make campaign contributions while they have active contracts. He also said he would push for fair elections, helping to balance the influence of large donors with that of low-dollar donors.

The saving grace for Allen’s vault into the chairmanship of such a large and critical committee is that prior to his election he was chief of staff for several years to then-Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chaired the same committee.

Grosso also was unhappy with initial assignments. He sought to have Mendelson add the University of the District of Columbia, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and DGS to the Committee on Education. The university is under Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole, and DGS is under Cheh’s committee.

The mismatch of agencies under committees was a common complaint during Council Period 21. Residents had a hard time determining which councilmember was responsible for what. “These things have a huge effect and shouldn’t be dismissed. The net result could be a lack of transparency and a lack of effective oversight,” said Lindenfeld

Without six other members to join him, there was no way Grosso could alter Mendelson’s assignments. “When Vince Gray was chairman, everyone had a committee,” said Jack Evans, adding that if he had made the decisions he would have divided DCRA between Robert White and Trayon White.  “This is Phil’s world. He is just very stubborn.”

Mendelson suggested his motives in the selection process were pure, although he deliberately removed some legislators as members of committees and refused to assign agencies to others, even as he sought their assistance. “The Council is stronger and a better institution than it was two years ago. We are working better and working more collaboratively.”

The ‘Titanic,’ Maybe
Creating the standing committees isn’t some deck chair exercise, however.  The assignments are political, providing Mendelson leverage to maintain control of the legislature and rally voters around him as he seeks reelection. “How much of this is being done for good government? How much is being done for the chairman to have improved relations with councilmembers? How much is being done for politics?” asked one political operative.

Noted Brizill, “All of the people up for reelection have committees with constituencies that can provide early money, which can preclude anyone from running against them.” Allen, Cheh, Silverman, McDuffie, Nadeau, Mendelson, and At-large member Anita Bonds are expected to position themselves this year for their 2018 reelection. Consider that Bonds was assigned the chairmanship of the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. That includes jurisdiction over public housing, the Housing Production Trust Fund, the Housing Finance Agency, and the Department of Housing and Community Development. Curiously it also includes the Commission on Aging and the Office of Aging. Senior citizens are considered the most dependable voting bloc in the city.

Silverman could successfully tap labor unions and city contractors. Mendelson, as chair of the Committee of the Whole, oversees several critical agencies including the Zoning Commission, the Office of Contracting and Procurement, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. After the paid leave bill he has to kiss and make up with business leaders who have been strong sources of campaign contributions for candidates in previous elections.

One John A. Wilson Building source said Mendelson even made sure that he wouldn’t have Gray snapping at his heels. “[Mendelson] cut a deal with Gray and threw Allen under the bus. The chairman doesn’t want Gray challenging him in two years.” There has been much talk that Gray may run against Mayor Bowser in 2018, as part of his campaign to restore his political influence and clout. He could just as easily run for Council chair, however.

Still, the level of dissatisfaction over committee assignments, said one District government insider, and the fact that members running for reelection will want to tout achievements, could create an opportunity for Bowser to rebuild alliances. “I think it plays well for the mayor.”

Mendelson has not set up any direct roadblocks for Bowser. In fact he has placed Ward 4’s Brandon Todd, the mayor’s protégé, as head of the Committee on Government Operations. Among other things it has jurisdiction over the Executive Office of the Mayor, the mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, and the Office of the City Administrator.“There is nothing to be gained by causing trouble for the mayor and nothing lost by giving Brandon oversight of the mayor’s office,” said Mendelson.

If you believe that, Mendelson has a bridge to sell you.

Freelance writer jonetta rose barras blogs at www.jonettarosebarras.com.