Can DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson handle the coming collisions over policy, politics and money?
WARD 3 State Board of Education member Eric Goulet publicly asked on Twitter whether DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson has become “unhinged.” Other civic and political leaders I spoke with wondered whether he is suffering a “midlife crisis” or struggling with some other issue.
“Something is definitely going on. Maybe something in his personal life is impacting these decisions,” said DC State Democratic Party Chair Charles Wilson.
“This is not the Phil I know,” continued Wilson, citing various attributes of the leader of the legislative branch: attention to details, awareness of the associated political environment, and moderate leanings.
The past few months have offered a different story, however. Mendelson appears to be somewhat tethered to members of the far-left wing of the council, especially Ward 6’s Charles Allen. Perhaps Mendelson has reassessed his political position after the November election with the arrival of two pols who seem to fall into that caucus.
Last year, during a highly competitive Democratic primary campaign, Mendelson seemed to deliberately rebrand himself as a progressive who was a member of the city’s original progressive political class. Is he now on a mission to completely strip himself of his moderate label?
“Well, I don’t think I’m unhinged,” Mendelson told me during an extensive interview earlier this week, without commenting about his seemingly shifting political ideology. He ignored questions about whether personal matters might be affecting his decision-making.
One thing is certain: Since the start of his fourth term as chairman in January, he has been caught in a swirl of controversies. He decided to change the chair of the council’s powerful Health Committee; he transmitted the Revised Criminal Code Act to Congress but then withdrew it; he declared that a bill granting local voting privileges to undocumented immigrants had completed the requisite congressional review period, challenging the timetable set by the Senate parliamentarian; and he and Allen started a fight with DC Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee over whether the CFO can declare there are insufficient funds to implement the fare-free buses law.
In the February revenue estimates sent to the mayor and council, Lee projected higher revenues this year but said it’s downhill after that. He blamed some of the problem on federal increases to the interest rate — home mortgages are nearing 7%, which is adversely affecting various real estate tax collections. Additionally, the vacancy rate for commercial property has gone through the roof, reducing the amount of money the city can collect from those owners. While revenues from sales taxes may be up, elected officials have imposed a host of restrictions on how some of those funds can be used.
The CFO revised his forecast downward for the out years: “$81 million in FY 2024, $183 million in FY 2025, and by approximately $200 million in FY 2026.” And then there is the matter of the federal pandemic recovery money, which will dry up soon. That portends a tough budget season with the potential for either cuts to programs or flat spending levels.
None of these issues seem new territory. But Mendelson has mostly handled each with the skill of a political novice without historical or cultural knowledge about the District and the most effective ways to navigate its relationship with the federal government and Congress. His inexplicable ineptitude has resulted in a direct challenge to DC’s effort to become a state and a palpable bruising of its national reputation, with more than a few people characterizing the government as amateurish.
When he was asked this week whether he would continue to push for the free bus rides, regardless of the revenue decline, he said “yes” without equivocation. He and Allen released a joint statement.
Mendelson asserted in our interview that the CFO had said in December there would be excess revenues to cover the cost for the program and that there can’t be a reversal of that position. “The law is not on the CFO’s side.” Further, said Mendelson, “The CFO doesn’t have the authority to pick and choose what programs” get funded.
Still seething at his breakfast with his council colleagues on Tuesday, Mendelson declared that the “CFO is not God.”
David Umansky, a spokesperson for the CFO, did not return my telephone calls to his office. His recorded message indicated that due to the COVID pandemic he was working at home and gave another number to call. However, he did not return a phone message left there. Neither he nor the CFO responded to my email.
Based on federal law passed in the mid-1990s by a Republican-controlled House, DC’s finance chief is independent. He has virtual control over every aspect of the city’s finances, including certifying that money is or isn’t available to provide services and programs.
In other words, if he’s not God, he certainly is a near God.
“The CFO can do whatever he wants. He has line-item authority,” said former Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who remains an expert on DC government finances and was in the legislature when Congress established the office of the independent CFO.
Evans said that the council appears to be engaged in using various contrivances to fund important programs. The free bus program is one, but he also cited the use of federal recovery funds to bolster the Housing Production Trust Fund.
“If they [council members] go down this road, they are inviting trouble,” continued Evans. “They are playing with fire.
“They need to rightsize this government. Now’s the time to do it,” added Evans.
Mendelson’s stated intention of using excess funds to cover all bus fares in the District — no matter the rider’s income — comes on the heels of his demand that Mayor Muriel Bowser fully fund every DCPS school. Can the city do both?
Bowser is expected to submit her Fiscal Year 2024 Budget and Financial Plan to the council on March 22. We will have to wait to see how she proposes to fund increasing costs and demands with declining revenue for FY 2024.
However, she offered a hint of what to expect in her statement released after the CFO’s February report, which she called “sobering.” Bowser noted that the current situation “requires us to make even tougher choices in the upcoming budget.” She also warned that “it would be fiscally irresponsible to try to tax our way to sustainable, long-term growth.”
The fight between the CFO and the council could invite more interference by Republicans looking for a platform from which they can pummel Democrats in advance of the 2024 presidential and congressional elections.
They effectively used the Revised Criminal Code Act for that purpose. The House and Senate have now both voted to disapprove the law — a sort of veto of the council’s override of the mayor’s veto.
When Bowser announced in January that she intended to veto the RCCA, which had been approved unanimously by the council, Mendelson endorsed the call issued by Allen and Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto to override the veto — despite growing opposition to the bill by District residents, many of whom were from Mendelson’s political base of moderate and independent voters. The collision with the mayor also came amid a rise in certain crimes, some of which were cited in objections to the RCCA raised by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for DC.
“Republicans had been telling us they are going to come for DC,” said Wilson, noting that the fight over the criminal code has given oxygen to their efforts. “We have put our Democratic allies across the country in a precarious spot.
“The timing of all this is just off,” added Wilson.
Unfortunately, the District’s political and fiscal independence has always been tempered by its colonial relationship with the federal government; by law, Congress is entitled to review all local legislation — and make changes or block any measure — before it can be fully enacted. Congress can also attach budget riders, a more frequently used mechanism of control.
Does anyone else remember that during a budget fight with Congress, President Barack Obama told House Speaker John Boehner that he could “have DC abortion.” When the city was hurting for funds, Republicans pushed to establish charter schools in the District; racing to get ahead of Congress, the council introduced and passed its own bill. For years, the city couldn’t implement a clean needle distribution program to help beat back HIV. The list goes on and on.
DC has fought for decades for the same freedoms as states. The courts, including the Supreme Court, have said that statehood can only be granted through congressional action, however.
The RCCA fight exposed the practical reality of the District’s unenviable position. House Republicans, joined by more than two-dozen Democrats despite their party’s traditional support of DC autonomy, approved a resolution to disapprove the RCCA. The Senate followed suit this week — an outcome that seemed clear for weeks but especially so after President Joe Biden made it known that he would not veto the disapproval resolution. He cited concerns raised by Bowser and others as his reasons, although he offered that he still supports statehood.
Riled by federal and congressional interference, statehood advocates and RCCA supporters staged a midday protest last week on Wednesday, hoping to prevent Senate disapproval but also to send the signal that DC would not sit by and serve as pawns in the national political drama between Republicans and Democrats.
The Rev. Wendy Hamilton, one of the organizers, told me before the rally got underway that retrospectively city leaders “could have worked better together.” She said there could have been efforts to be more inclusive of average citizens who didn’t necessarily embrace aspects of the RCCA. She also suggested that “people who were involved could have been more honest” about their opposition to aspects of the bill.
Still, Congress shouldn’t have intruded, Hamilton said. “No one asked them to interfere. They have so maligned the city” and are “being disingenuous” about their interest in what is happening in DC.
“What’s to stop their intervention on the next issue — whether it’s the criminal code or reproductive rights or marijuana,” asked Hamilton. Several people were arrested outside the Capitol toward the end of the rally and march.
The protest had no effect on the Senate action. The disapproval resolution passed 81 to 14. This fact shouldn’t be lost on anyone: Democrats control the Senate, which apparently didn’t matter.
It also was of no consequence that days before that Senate vote, Mendelson proclaimed that he had withdrawn the legislation — a late-stage surrender in the fight over the RCCA. He said the Home Rule Act gives the council chair authority to transmit measures to Congress, and to withdraw a bill. Actually, nothing in the Home Rule Act explicitly states he has the latter prerogative. In any event, Senate leadership said the vote was on the resolution of disapproval, not the legislation.
“I didn’t have a lot of choices,” Mendelson conceded in our interview prior to Wednesday’s vote.
Mendelson pushed back when asked whether he felt responsible for how things fell apart. “You can’t put this on me alone. I didn’t manage the bill or the message.
“I will take responsibility for how the council handled this when it went up to the House,” he continued. “We thought we had a shot with how many Democrats we had in the Senate. We thought we could minimize the Republican advantage in the House.”
In other words, he miscalculated Republicans, Democrats and many of his own constituents. There were only 200 people at Wednesday’s rally, despite the fact nearly a dozen organizations were listed as sponsors or organizers. That puny showing suggests that, perhaps, District residents were not nearly as enraged by Republican intrusion around this issue as some advocates and elected officials. Mendelson, as the leader of DC’s legislative branch, was also slow to personally and directly engage congressional leadership; sending letters clearly is insufficient.
When I spoke with him before the Senate’s disapproval vote, Mendelson hadn’t yet conducted a full post-evaluation. He had reached a curious conclusion, however: “I think this will be an asterisk.”
What’s he talking about?!
Can someone please tell Mendelson that Republicans — and their allies — are determined to win back the White House in 2024. If it helps them achieve that mission, they are prepared to trample all over DC. They have already started running ads in some places, accusing Democrats of being soft on crime; the District is their prime example. There’s also now a resolution of disapproval on a police reform bill passed by the council in December and enacted without the mayor’s signature in January.
This isn’t a battle for the politically naive or timid. As leader of the legislative branch, Mendelson needs to suit up — and he also needs to ready his army of District residents.
This article was previously published at TheDCLine.org