The District of Columbia government was found guilty earlier this year for abusing civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize people’s personal property on even the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, and without even filing charges against that individual.
But while the D.C. government got off by paying a fine, the cost was passed on to city taxpayers. Not only did public officials abuse the public, they then made the public pay the penalty for being abused. This is plain wrong.
As IT professionals say, “it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” Although Board members of private organizations are legally culpable for their organization’s misdeeds, D.C. Councilmembers are unaccountable for government policy and operations which are illegal or harmful to the people. And to quote Thomas Sowell:
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.
Public officials habitually hide budgetary costs to avoid accountability and scrutiny from the public. Only through extra research did I learn that streetcar development will actually cost taxpayers $50 million dollars per mile, and that DC traditional public schools have the lowest performance and highest cost - of any state in the country — at over $29,000 per student. Is city revenue helping to educate our children? Or is it feeding a bloated and ineffective DCPS bureaucracy? How would the average voter know when neither politicians nor the media report on the costs of public policy and its effectiveness? Voting out the powers that be, or at least asking them hard questions, is difficult under these circumstances.
D.C. Councilmembers, who could be nicknamed “The Unaccountables,” are paid around $130,000 annually regardless of outcomes. To fix this racket, perhaps we should reduce Councilmember salaries by two-thirds and devise a pay-for-performance system for them to earn the rest if they deliver on their promises. Additional measures could include:
- Scrapping partisan elections — requiring politicians to run on their merits rather than on party labels. D.C. is one of a few major US cities where party labels appear on ballots.
- Requiring D.C. government to publish detailed cost-benefit analysis of major policies, including projected and actual outcomes. We must know if a policy fails or harms people so we can fix it. Knowing costs and outcomes may also uncover “sweetheart” back-room deals.
- Holding Councilmembers personally culpable for harm caused to people if they vote for illegal policies or oversee illegal operations (using rules similar to those for private Board members.)
Accountability will not come about just by talking about it. While no system is perfect, rules to bind public officials are needed to reduce abuse and fraud and increase government effectiveness.
Pranav Badhwar, the author, is a Libertarian candidate in the DC Council race for Ward 6. View his DCTV campaign video here.