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Friday, April 19, 2024

Building Public Policy and Political Platforms

After agreeing to divvy up the prime real estate of committee chairmanships, DC Councilmembers have begun identifying their top public policy priorities. As a group they are famous – infamous even – for introducing excessive numbers of legislative proposals.

Many of those bills never see the light of day; they die in committee. Others make it out and get approved by the full legislature, only to be stopped dead when the requisite funds aren’t available for implementation. The phrase “pending appropriations” has become well-known around the John A. Wilson Building as a vehicle for placating the masses, much like a pacifier or pabulum for a baby, particularly during an election cycle.

While elections aren’t until 2018, several councilmembers – Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau for example – have announced their intentions to re-up for the job. They have started to focus more keenly, therefore, on satisfying their base and scoping out opportunities to expand it. Their legislative proposals run the gamut from affordable housing to universal paid leave, to benefits for police, improved services for ex-criminal offenders, business deregulation, and campaign finance reform.

Consider that At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds has reintroduced legislation favorable to the city’s renters. The Rental Housing Affordability Stabilization Amendment Act of 2017 would reconfigure the formula for annual increases in rent-controlled buildings. The Preservation of Affordable Rent Control Housing Amendment Act would “prohibit agreements between tenants and a housing provider from including terms that would result in inequitable treatment among any current tenant, or inequitable treatment of any current tenant relative to any future tenant.” Essentially it would halt the controversial voluntary rent increases into which tenants sometimes enter with landlords to effect improvements in their buildings. Those rent hikes often are imposed on new renters and have the adverse effect of removing affordable units from the market.

Last year, when Bonds introduced similar bills, most of the 13 legislators joined her. That augurs well for passage this time before Bonds’ name appears on a 2018 ballot. After all, councilmembers know that more than 80,000 units are under the city’s rent control law. Translation: a whole bunch of voters are watching.

Council Chair pro tempore Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) may not have that kind of smooth sailing with his efforts to beef up regulations for short-term housing rentals like those associated with Airbnb. “Critically, the new short-term rental license category limits hosts to short-term renting only their own primary residence. This requirement, when it is enforced, will effectively end commercial short-term rental operations that deplete housing and harm neighborhoods.”

In addition to a new “basic” licensing regimen and limits on the number of units that could be rented, the bill would require the owner to be on the premises throughout the time the space is renting, with the exception of 15 vacation days. The legislation would establish fines for violations of $1,000 for the first and up to $7,000 for the third infraction.

McDuffie could find himself on the wrong side of the issue, however. Within the last two years increasing numbers of working- and middle-class residents have used short-term renting or Airbnb as a vehicle for supplementing income. It has become a tool for getting the mortgage paid and putting food on the table.

Instead of being perceived as protecting affordable housing, as he has claimed, McDuffie might be labeled a Grinch for taking money out of residents’ wallets. Alternatively he could be cast as a troll for the hotel industry, which sees short-term rental businesses as encroachment on its territory and bottom line. To emphasize that point Airbnb has started its own opposition campaign; a nasty fight has begun.

It also doesn’t help that McDuffie’s bill may be viewed as anti-small business at a time when Chair Phil Mendelson has said he wants to change the notion that DC is not business friendly. Mendelson said last year that he wants a moratorium on new business regulations. Last month he and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the Local Business Support Amendment Act of 2017.

“This legislation removes government-imposed roadblocks to our city businesses, which are a driving force to our economic prosperity,” Grosso stated at its introduction. The bill would create an ombudsman in the Department of Small and Local Business Development; separate the certificate of occupancy from the basic business license (BBL); eliminate the BBL fee structure; and permit license transfers from one location to another without charging a fee

A similar proposal was introduced in 2015 by Mendelson. It didn’t go anywhere. This time it may have wings. The bill could be the quid pro quo for the chairman’s aggressive support of the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA). Still, the deregulation bill could hit a snag. Mendelson, along with three other lawmakers, has introduced legislation that would alter the original paid leave bill even before it is implemented. That action has irritated UPLA advocates including At-Large member Elissa Silverman and Grosso.

Silverman may have to walk a fine line in her opposition. Privately a few business community leaders confessed to the District Beat that they are trying to recruit someone to run against her in 2018. Grosso’s seat is safe at least for the next four years.

Not every legislator has the pressure of an election on his or her shoulder. People like former Mayor and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent C. Gray, Ward 8’s Trayon White, and At-large Member Robert White just arrived on the scene. Still they have to establish their bona fides. Were they the right politicians for the job? Are they prepared to deliver for their voters?

Driven by the need to keep campaign promises, Robert White took the unprecedented step of sending a letter last month to Mayor Bowser urging her to increase funding for his key issues of affordable housing, job training, education, and returning citizens. “I believe [DC] faces a looming long-term risk to our stability and prosperity as a result of persistent income and wealth inequality. Compared to the nation as a whole, a smaller proportion of our residents are middle class, leaving our city starkly divided between rich and poor.”

“I wanted the mayor to know I am interested in working collaboratively. We have some overlapping priorities. I hope she sees fit to fund those priorities,” said White.

More specifically, White has requested the mayor provide an additional $17.4 million for permanent supportive housing, targeted housing for the homeless, and rapid rehousing aimed to keep people out of shelters. He also has proposed that Mayor Bowser put another $3 million into her financial plan to provide transportation for adults attending training programs. He has asked that she add two full-time staffers to the agency serving ex-offenders and that she fully fund the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurial Program Act of 2016. (That legislation was advocated by former At-Large Councilmember Vincent B. Orange, whom White unseated in 2016.) The bill would assist returning citizens in setting up small businesses.

Mayor Bowser is expected to present her FY 2018 budget and financial plan later this month. As in the past, the Council will take her proposal and do with it what it wishes. That’s because the executive proposes and the legislature disposes. White knows that.

By lobbying the mayor, White may be hedging his bets. If Bowser agrees, she would be seizing an opportunity to rebuild an alliance that she lost last year when three of her dependable allies were booted from the legislature during the general election.

White, of course, wouldn’t present his motives in such purely political terms. He told the District Beat that he is focused on bridging the gap “between where the District has moved in recent years and people who have been left behind.” He argued that despite the recent financial reports, which present a glowing picture of the city’s fiscal health, DC faces “a great risk by not addressing the growing income gap and a dangerously small middle class … I believe [the city] faces a long-term liability to our prosperity and stability as a result of persistent income and wealth inequality.”

White said after reviewing the recent 2016 comprehensive financial report that the city is in good fiscal health. “The money is there.”

That may be true, but it likely won’t have White’s name on it. McDuffie has a better chance of getting his bill passed than White has of securing the additional funding he is seeking. That’s because McDuffie is a committee chair with control over the budgets of agencies under his purview. White, on the other hand, would be sitting at the table during budget discussions without even Monopoly money.

Stepping Up
Ward 6’s Charles Allen has money and clout as chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, one of the largest. He is in the position to make or break a few careers, including his own – although he is much too modest to make such a claim.

Allen helped slap down Gray’s emergency legislation to enhance salaries of Metropolitan Police Department officers while increasing the total population of the force. “I wouldn’t take $63 million while we still have some elements of the [comprehensive crime prevention act of 2016] that have not moved forward,” Allen explained, adding that he has promised to conduct an early public hearing on Gray’s bill.

Allen isn’t oblivious to the issue of police. He introduced the First Responder Housing Incentive Program Amendment Act of 2017, which would offer a $10,000 grant and a $10,000 deferred loan to officers interested in buying a home in DC and living full-time in the city. Currently, of the 3,800 officers on the force, Allen said only 619 reside in the city. His legislation “would draw prospective and new officers in on the front end and hopefully prevent them from moving to more affordable surrounding communities, taking their experience with them.”

Like White, Allen is interested in improving the reentry of returning citizens. He said he has been exploring options with the executive, including using the DC Jail as a preparation site. Offenders would spend the last 12-18 months of their sentences there, receiving training and other services to ensure “they don’t re-offend,” explained Allen.

Perhaps his most controversial proposals would be those related to campaign finance reform. Councilmembers have been promising changes for the past three years, after several former legislators were tagged by the Office of the US Attorney with felonies and Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign was caught in an illegal funding scandal.

Allen has introduced the Government Contractor Pay to Play Prevention Act with Mendelson, Silverman, Grosso, Trayon White, Robert White, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and Ward 1 Councilmember Nadeau. That measure would prohibit businesses or individuals with contracts valued at $100,000 or more from contributing for one year to any political campaign. “As a citizen, as an individual, you can still give,” said Allen.

Allen also has proposed forcing candidates to retire all their debt for any given campaign within six months after the close of the election. He has endorsed a public financing proposal introduced by Grosso. Allen said he is making a few changes but did not offer details. The bill would provide support to candidates using tax dollars based on the number of reported donors. “This is designed to empower small donors,” said Allen.

The Congressional Elephant
How successful Allen and the deep-blue crew will be with altering campaign finance and ethics laws or implementing any of their other public policy proposals may be determined by whether Congress decides to interfere. Some civic leaders like Terry Lynch, an active civic leader, have worried aloud that the Council is ignoring the red wall around Capitol Hill. “I don’t think they understand the new political reality.” He said legislators appear willing to have their bills thrown out or repealed by Congress. “I think the most productive use of their time would be making sure they are conducting [effective] oversight.”

Lynch and others have suggested that too much of the new legislation is aimed at social programs and is not favored in Congress. Under the city’s partial independence, Congress has 30 days to review legislation approved by the Council. It must act affirmatively to prevent implementation. Last month, a US House of Representatives committee with direct oversight of the local government tried to block the Death with Dignity Act, which essentially allows a resident suffering a terminal illness, in concert with a physician, to decide if or when to take their own life. The congressional committee’s action came too late in the process, allowing the city to move forward at least temporarily. Congress can still bar the spending of city funds on the law via its appropriations process.

“My sense is that it would be more productive to use the time dealing with low-hanging fruit,” continued Lynch, citing infrastructure improvements and redevelopment of facilities like the FBI Building at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue or the “decrepit” police headquarters.”

That kind of possum strategy could be useless. The District is a Democratic stronghold, which makes it a perfect target for conservatives interested in whipping their opponents. Meanwhile local officials have made no secret of their loathing of Congress and seem on a collision course with the federal overlords. The mayor and Council have asserted they will retain their “sanctuary city” status, refusing to provide any immigrant enforcement help to federal agencies. With a tinge of sarcasm, Cheh and Nadeau have each invited Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the city’s congressional watchdog, to attend local public hearings.

The District’s love-hate relationship with Congress isn’t new. Federal representatives have stepped into local affairs for years. They once prevented the city from distributing needles to help stop the spread of HIV. More recently they stopped implementation of retail regulations the city would have used to capitalize on its legalization of recreational marijuana. They continue to prohibit the use of local tax dollars to finance abortions.

Allen may exacerbate the congressional ire. In preparation for Congress’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) he has introduced the Defending Access to Women’s Health Care Services Act of 2017. It would require, among other things, that insurers cover the cost of contraceptives and sterilization procedures. This flies in the face of the intentions of House Republicans, who are threatening to bar Planned Parenthood from Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements.

The Capitol is filled with “pro-lifers.” Allen seemed unfazed by the threat and has strongly disagreed with Lynch and others. Besides, the city may be building a potent posse. Last month more than 1,000 people gathered for the “Hands Off DC” campaign that Allen helped launch. I don’t subscribe to the belief that because we have a hostile Congress that we should just stop doing our job,” said Allen.

Jonetta Rose Barras, an author and freelance journalist, blogs at jonettarosebarras.com.


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