Adding Council Members to Decrease Their Power

Photo by Wally Gobertz

Mike DeBonis recently kicked off a discussion over the size of DC’s Council with his article “Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?” The article came in response to a recent Pew study on the compensation of council members in major American cities, which found that at an average of around $130,000 DC’s council came in second. The authors of the study acknowledge that in DC’s case this isn’t comparing apples to apples–unlike other city governments, the DC council performs functions more traditionally associated with state governments.

Looking at it from this perspective, DeBonis asks whether DC residents are “undergoverned”, compared to the typical state resident. By this he means simply that we have a lot fewer representatives per resident than state residents have. He suggests that it might be reasonable to consider expanding the number of members to the Council.

Now, I thought I would be unsympathetic to this line of argument. After all, as the Pew study highlights, Council members are expensive. Even if you compare them to state county officials, rather than other city council members, they come out way overpriced. Moreover, each Council member is allocated $400,000 for their staff, and twice that much if they chair a committee. The payoff would have to be pretty great to justify the huge additional expenses of adding just one more Council member, much less a handful or a dozen.

Yet I have to admit I was swayed by DeBonis’ argument, on purely libertarian grounds. For while DeBonis argues that we are “undergoverned” in the sense of being underrepresented, in practice we are really overgoverned because fewer representatives means fewer barriers to legislation.

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.

Now I think Wyoming is ridiculously overrepresented–but the fact that you only have to get seven votes to pass anything is definitely a frighteningly low barrier to legislation. DeBonis documents the consequences:

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.

Whether you are a libertarian or just someone who believes in good governance, this should give you pause. DeBonis calls this throwing “legislative darts against a wall”, but I call it an unhealthy concentration of power.

As such, I would support Richard Layman’s proposal to double the number of Council members elected by each ward, as well as four more at-large seats. Including an at-large chairman, this would bring the Council membership up to 25.

There has been a lot of discussion about how to bridge the budget gap here in the District, and I have been skeptical that the Council would ever consider serious measures. I believe that politicians are unlikely to behave responsibly as a result of reasoned discussion. The only circumstances under which they either support good policies or fewer bad ones is when they are facing the right constraints on their behavior.

It is my view that increasing the number of Council members is a far more effective measure for addressing our budget woes than if we were to change the entire composition of our current Council. A larger Council is a more constrained Council; less likely to spend as recklessly as the current sized Council does.

Take Council compensation, for example. Most of the discussion I’ve seen on Council size includes the stipulation that we ought to reduce their compensation. While I agree with this, I’m not certain that a larger Council would be more likely to vote to reduce its pay. I do think that there’s a strong argument for the idea that a larger Council would be less likely to increase their own pay.

The size of the governing body is undoubtedly subject to rapid diminishing returns, and it seems likely that Wyoming crossed into the red on the front long ago. But my instinct is that we are well within the range where the marginal value of additional representation results in a net gain.

Hat tip: Greater Greater Washington

Also, I want to thank Eli Dourado for discussing some of the implications of larger or smaller governing bodies. And for pointing out New Hampshire’s extreme position on this issue.

Which appears to be true. I’d take 400 Council members being paid $100 a year in a heartbeat!

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