Greater Greater Washington

The DC Council should abolish Constituent Service Funds

The draft ethics bill under consideration by the DC Council takes steps to limit the use of Constituent Service Funds. The Government Operations Committee should take a bold step and abolish the funds altogether when they report a final bill.


Photo from the DC Council.

Analysis conducted by DC for Democracy makes this painfully clear. DC for Democracy found that very little money raised for CSFs went to needy constituents. More often, funds were spent on "other", a category that includes catering, local travel, and event tickets.

The draft ethics bill addresses this abuse of Constituent Service Funds by cutting the maximum amount Councilmembers may raise, from $80,000 to $40,000. This limit would bring the funds back in line with their size prior to 2009, when the council upped their limit to $80,000.

This new limit is simply window dressing to make what are essentially slush funds more palatable to the public. Either CSF's make sense or they don't. And the proposed cut to their size is a tacit admission that they don't.

Additionally, only 5 of the 13 Councilmembers raised more than $40,000 for their Constituent Service Funds last year, and 4 of them raised between $40,000 and $50,000. Only Jack Evans, who raised $85,000, would be really effected by the new limit.

The draft ethics bill further limits the use of Constituent Service Funds by defining more narrowly what they can be spent on. The loopholes, however, are obvious for all to see. They can't be spent on season tickets to sports events, but they can be spent on individual game tickets. They can't be spent to promote a Councilmember, but they can be spent on community events sponsored by the Councilmember.

In 2010 only three sitting Council members spent 25% or more of their CSF's on constituent needs (Vince Gray spent 28% on constituent needs before being elected mayor). Conversely, 6 Council members spent more than 60% of their funds on the "other" category. If these numbers were reversed, there still wouldn't be enough CSF money going to needy District residents.

At the end of the day, the amount spent by Councilmembers meeting the daily needs of constituents through these funds ($48,271) is a tiny drop in the bucket relative to the needs of a city in which 30% of children live in poverty. Instead of giving needy constituents crumbs from their table of wealthy donors, Councilmembers should address the root causes of poverty and unemployment that create these needs in the first place.

Matt Rumsey moved to D.C in 2005 to pursue a degree in History at American University. Originally from Connecticut, he has had no intention of leaving D.C. since he moved to Columbia Heights in the summer of 2008. He now lives in Ward 5. He currently works at The Sunlight Foundation. Views here are his own. 

Comments

Add a comment »

As shady as these CSFs are, or can be. There's much more unethical going on on the Council that should be the main focus of this bill.

From the completely new formation of a DC Government board, to new disclosure requirements for elected officials, we should focus more on those issues in the days and weeks to come.

by @SamuelMoore on Nov 29, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

Oh, you mean these funds were supposed to be for constituents? And I always thought the 'Constiuent' in the name meant from constituents ... like you and I. I know I've contributed from time to time.

In all seriousness, although the CMs said these funds would be used to help people in financial straights and to help the needy, I don't think they ever said that was the only use for these funds ... and anyone who's ever been active in DC 'activism' knows these funds are intended to cover a wide range of expenses which would otherwise come out of taxpayer dollars.

Like @SamuelMoore says above, there are other areas that should be the main focus of any ethics bill. And personally, I don't see how there's even an ethics issue in this matter. When I contributed I did so knowing my money would help councilmembers provide services that are above and beyond what the District of Columbia as a government (and the taxpayers) are willing to pay for. Ask any of the many pro-bono all volunteer groups in the District who spend their time doing good for the city if they've ever received funds from a Councilmember in one form another (sponsorship of an event, advertisement, etc.) and you'll hear YES. Ask them if they realize it came from these consituent service funds funding by people voluntarily contributing, and they probably won't even have given that a second thought. Do away with these funds on the mistaken belief that somehow the Councilmember is spending the funds in the 'wrong' way, and you'll have a lot of do-gooding groups in the city wondering why the 'donations' they've come to depend on are now gone ...

by Lance on Nov 29, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't go so far as to say that they should abolished. Frankly, it seems as if they are merely "petty cash" funds rather than simply "constituent" funds. And if I understand correctly, these funds are raised by the CM and not taken out of taxpayer dollars?

If that's true, I don't see the particular disadvantage to DC residents. Maybe they should just refer to it by some other name. I'm more offended by CM's having outside jobs than this fund.

BTW Matt, do you like to drink? :)

by HogWash on Nov 29, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

This limit would bring the funds back in line with their size prior to 2009, when the council upped their limit to $80,000.

Only Jack Evans, who raised $85,000, would be really effected by the new limit.

This part confused me.

Also, if the purpose is to help residents or "constituents" in need, why don't they just create and fund a charity similar to what we have over in Arlington. AMEN (Arlingtonians Meeting Emergency Needs) provides small, one-time grants that help people keep the power on, stay in their home or other emergency needs. 90% of their funds go to serving residents in need, as opposed to the 25% or less for constituent service funds.

Plus, they're accountable to a board of directors for the charity rather than the whims of a councilmember.

I guess the real purpose of the constituent service funds is to attract the attention of a councilmember through a generous donation, and to attract the attention of your constituents through the same?

by Michael Perkins on Nov 29, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

@Lance, keep in mind that the analysis of these funds also identified the percentage of expenditures going to community groups and events, and that was usually a small share of the total as well. Constituent services and community groups and events combined only accounted for 13% of Yvette Alexander's expenditures, 19% of Kwame Brown's and Mary Cheh's, 21% of Muriel Bowser's, and 25% of Jack Evans'. That's not where the money is going.

@Hogwash, if a petty cash drawer funded by private donations is really necessary, we should make sure the emphasis is on "petty". Tommy Wells spent $1,900 on "other" expenditures in 2010; if he can run an office on that figure, what was Jack Evans doing with his "other" expenditures of $64,000? Either petty cash represents a tiny fraction of that amount, or he can't budget worth a damn.

by cminus on Nov 29, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

I think a problem with constituent service funds is not primarily that the money is being diverted from helping constituents in need (and instead being used as petty cash), but that the existence of these funds serve as yet another way for special interests to gain access to a CM and in return get special consideration for their interests.
I like Michael's idea of establishing a charity. That said, I think the government and utility companies already have programs that can provide emergency assistance under specific circumstances.

by DCster on Nov 29, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Cminus, lol..I hear you.

I guess I could check online (of course I could) but is the purpose really to provide for "constituents in need" or "constituent services" because there is a subtle distinction between the two. At least I think it is.

I'm not sure if the fund (as described) was meant to help constituents in need and if that's the case then...well...I don't know. Just sounds odd.

by HogWash on Nov 29, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

@HogWash:
Looking at the DC Code (1-1104.03), it indicates the funds are to be used for 'citizen-service programs within the District of Columbia.' So the law doesn't mandate recipients be in need (the only explicit restriction is "No campaign activities shall be conducted nor shall campaign literature or paraphernalia be distributed as part of citizen-service programs conducted pursuant to this subsection.")
I don't know what the initial CMs were intending when the law was passed, but I think there are better ways to fund CM office events if that is what they intended.

by DCster on Nov 29, 2011 5:03 pm • linkreport

I disagree with ending CSFs entirely, but do agree that the attempts at reform still leave much to be desired. I think CSFs are well-intentioned at providing discretionary spending for constituents in need; but they need greater definition toward supporting such a purpose.

by Bossi on Nov 29, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

I've been beating on the cause of eliminating constituent service funds since before anyone else was talking about the issue, but I doubt it will happen. So I'm proposing an alternate approach, under which Councilmembers would be allowed to establish two funds: a constituent service fund and a support expenditures fund.

The constituent service fund may only undertake direct aid to constituents in need (funerals, rent, utilities, etcetera) and direct cash contributions to underwrite the operations of community groups and events -- essentially, the first two columns on DC for Democracy's chart. This fund would have a maximum annual allowance of $25,000 (the sitting Councilmember who spent the most on these activities, Jim Graham, spent $22,000). The support expenditures fund could be used for anything the current constituent services funds can be used for, and would be subject to a maximum limit of $2,500 (three Councilmembers -- Catania, Mendelson, and Wells -- managed to stay under this amount on their "other" expenditures, so it's clearly adequate for the office petty cash fund). This way, everyone can keep up all their constituent and community expenditures, while having enough cash on hand to cover reasonable non-reimbursable office expenses.

by cminus on Nov 29, 2011 8:18 pm • linkreport

It is unreasonable to expect "constituent service funds" to serve the needy -- because councilmembers are not equipped to figure out, in a fair way, who is needy and who is not. That's an executive-branch function. The legislature is supposed to supervise it. Both the fairness and the supervision go out the window when the legislature strays into executive functions.

by Turnip on Nov 29, 2011 8:27 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this, Matt. As Turnip says, the Council is taking on executive functions, the purpose being to build systems of patronage that help they buy votes. Boss Tweed would be impressed!
Also, the CSFs are an end-run around campaign contributions, as they are mostly donated by wealthy individuals and corporations, and unused campaign funds can be rolled over into the CSFs.

by Kesh on Nov 30, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

Hear Hear for DC4D's report. Get rid of the CSFs. If councilmembers want to help constituents, they ought to ensure that a government agency is providing funds for the need -- or support routing these extra funds to a nonprofit to do so. This set-up is rife for abuse from beginning to end and there is nothing positive whatsoever about them. They need to be abolished.

by Dennis Jaffe on Nov 30, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

Please.......Let's be real, the problem with the "Constituent Services Fund" is not the amounts of money; it's how the funds are used. If we can raise the "standards" for council representation, there are endless places to really do good. Work Ethics for our Leadership is the real issue.

by Tyrone F General on Dec 3, 2011 8:10 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or