Expenditures

DC Councilmembers are allowed to receive up to $80,000 per year in contributions to their Constituent Services Funds (CSF’s) per year, and may spend up to that amount per year as well for constituent services. Leftover campaign funds may also be contributed without regard to the $80,000 limit. It is a widely held view among District residents that CSF’s are used primarily to pay for urgent individual or family needs such as rental assistance to avoid eviction, utility bills to prevent cutoff, or help with funeral expenses, etc.

The reality is that councilmembers spend very little from their CSF’s to meet these immediate constituent needs. As shown in Table 1, during 2010, for nine (9) councilmembers the amount spent for these needs represented only between 1% and 12% of their total expenditures. The other four members ranged from 25% to 32%. For all members combined, the amounts spent totaled only $48,271, representing 12% of all expenditures from CSF’s for the year.

TABLE 1
COUNCILMEMBER EXPENDITURES ON ACTUAL CONSTITUENT NEEDS (2010)
Councilmember Total Constituent Svcs Expenditures Amount Actually Spent on Constituent Needs1 % Actually Spent on Constituent Needs
Yvette Alexander $49,939 $1,007 2%
Marion Barry $14,463 $3,607 25%
Muriel Bowser $35,713 $2,336 7%
Kwame Brown $7.354 $816 8%
Michael Brown $49,951 $4,793 10%
David Catania $14,932 $1,855 12%
Mary Cheh $34,686 $476 1%
Jack Evans $85,381 $3,286 4%
Jim Graham $48,713 $11,988 25%
Vince Gray $50,508 $14,235 28%
Phil Mendelson $3,751 $455 12%
Harry Thomas, Jr $6,259 $768 12%
Tommy Wells $8,299 $2,649 32%

1Covers immediate constituent needs, mostly to provide rental assistance to avoid eviction, pay electricity bill to avoid service cutoff, and help pay funeral expenses.

Source: DC Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) quarterly reports submitted by councilmembers.

Thus, despite widespread impressions to the contrary, councilmembers spent the vast majority of their constituent services funds for purposes not related to helping constituents with serious, immediate needs.

What then are most constituent services funds spent for? They fall into two broad categories. The first is to assist community organizations and to sponsor or support community events. In 2010, as shown in Table 2, councilmembers spent far more on community organizations and events than on pressing individual and family needs. The amounts spent in this category by councilmembers ranged from 8% to 48% of their total expenditures, with the exception of one member for whom these kinds of expenditures represented 77% of total expenditures.

The other category of expenditures may primarily benefit the councilmember and staff rather constituents. This includes spending spending on office supplies, computer expenses, printing, local travel and large amounts for catering and refreshments, of which an unknown amount may be for community events. Constituent funds were also used for Council breakfast meetings, for bottled water for their offices, and even to pay for season tickets costing $28,000 to four professional sports teams.

Nine councilmembers spent far more from their constituent services funds on this category of expenditures that they spent on either immediate constituent needs or on community events or organizations, with their expenditures for this category ranging from 40% to 87% of their total CSF expenditures. (See Table 2 for details)

TABLE 2
COUNCILMEMBER EXPENDITURES FOR CONSTITUENT NEEDS AND COMMUNITY EVENTS & ORGANIZATIONS (2010)
Councilmember Total Constituent Svcs Expenditures % Spent on Constituent Needs % Spent on Community Events/Orgs % Spent on Other Kinds of Expenditures1
Yvette Alexander $49,939 2% 11% 87%
Marion Barry $14,463 25% 35% 40%
Muriel Bowser $35,713 7% 14% 79%
Kwame Brown $7,354 11% 8% 81%
Michael Brown $49,951 10% 22% 68%
David Catania $14,932 12% 77% 11%
Mary Cheh $34,686 1% 18% 81%
Jack Evans $85,381 4% 21% 75%
Jim Graham $48,713 25% 20% 55%
Vince Gray $50,508 28% 42% 30%
Phil Mendelson $3,751 12% 48% 40%
Harry Thomas, Jr $6,259 12% 29% 59%
Tommy Wells $8,299 32% 45% 23%

1Includes spending by councilmembers for office supplies, computer expenses, printing, catering & refreshments and local travel; also for breakfast meetings of councilmembers, for Deer Park water and to pay for season tickets to DC professional sports teams.
Note: Catering & refreshments were not broken down and likely include amounts spent in support of community events.

Source: DC Office of Campaign Finance quarterly reports submitted by councilmembers.

Contributions to CSF’s

As noted above, councilmembers are allowed to accept contributions of up to $80,000 per year for their CSF’s, plus leftover campaign contributions. Contributions are limited to $500 per individual or entity.

As can be seen in Table 3, there was great variability among councilmembers in the amounts brought in during the year, ranging from a low of $33 to a high of $81,000. Only four members had contributions in excess of $40,000, while eight brought in less than $15,000. Total contributions to CSF’s were $308,321, and average of $23,717 per member.
The contributions came primarily from those donating the $500 maximum allowed. Many of the $500 maximum donations were from familiar names of individuals and entities that appear prominently in campaign fundraising reports as well. We can only speculate about the motivations behind these contributions. It is worth noting, however, that contributions of $500 over four years ($2,000) vastly exceed the amounts that can be legally contributed to a campaign fund during that time ($500 for ward-level races, $1,000 for at-large races).

TABLE 3
TOTAL CONSTITUENT SERVICES CONTRIBUTIONS TO COUNCILMEMBERS (2010)
Y. Alexander $46,725 J. Evans $81,000
M. Barry $14,000 J. Graham $ 8,461
M. Bowser $50,128 V. Gray $3,142
K. Brown $2,200 P. Mendelson $4,500
M. Brown $57,811 H. Thomas $6,925
D. Catania $ 4,405 T. Wells $ 33
M. Cheh $28,991
TOTAL $308,321

Source: DC Office of Campaign Finance quarterly reports submitted by councilmembers.

Conclusions

DC for Democracy believes that CSF’s should be eliminated. The quite limited amounts spent on hardship cases handled by these funds—less than $50,000 for all councilmembers’ CSF’s—suggests that there must be a better way to handle them, perhaps in the executive branch through a central office with the ability to access city-wide public and private resources to service them.

We are also concerned that the combination of the nature and sources of contributions, the ability to transfer leftover campaign funds into these accounts, and their use to fund community organizations and events, raise the question whether these funds are being seen as an adjunct to political campaign contributions. There are many legitimate expenditures being made by CSF’s, but our belief is that they should be covered by other means and through budget authorizations. Reducing the limits on contributions and expenditures from $80,000 to $40,000, as Councilmember Muriel Bowser proposes, yet not really narrowing the definition of what CSF’s can be spent for, does not, in our view, address the underlying question of why the CSF’s should be continued.