This week, the D.C. Council briefly turned its attention away from the city’s strained budget, yawning economic chasm, and corruption scandals to focus on something more immediate: councilmembers’ language. During a shouting match at a council retreat earlier this month, at-large member David Catania famously dropped an f-bomb on Ward 8’s Marion Barry. Now the council’s leader, Kwame Brown, wants to make bad words illegal with a bill that would prohibit colleagues from using “profane, indecent, or abusive language” at public meetings.
But why stop there? So long as we’re using the force of law to police local politicians’ linguistic tics, here are a few other suggestions:
The problem: Vanity
Example: “You can’t mention the convention center without saying my name”—Ward 2’s Jack Evans, in November, taking credit for the mammouth downtown facility.
The solution: “Members who engage in excess credit-claiming shall face a fine of not less than $250.”
The problem: Cowardice
Example: “Many councilmembers privately question Brown’s leadership skills”—From a 2010 Washington Post story. That year, all but one colleague endorsed Brown’s candidacy for council chair.
The solution: “Members found to have hidden behind anonymity to undercut things they support publicly shall wear a scarlet letter ‘C’ on their clothing for not less than three consecutive public meetings.”
The problem: Fence-straddling
Example: “I have urged Councilmember Thomas to consider seriously doing what is best for his family and his constituents.”—Brown’s statement on the eve of Harry Thomas Jr.’s corruption plea. The statement did not actually call for a resignation.
The solution: “Members who make media statements intended to connote dramatic action but failing upon closer examination to do so shall have access to the council’s press contact list suspended for a period of not less than 30 days.”
Example: In 2010, at-large member Michael Brown told City Paper’s Dave McKenna that he had been named to the elite All-Met basketball squad as a high schooler. On closer examination, the box score his staff provided McKenna referenced an entirely different Michael Brown.
The solution: “Members found to have cited others’ accomplishments as their own shall forfeit the voting privileges to that other person for the duration of the council term.”
The problem: False umbrage
Example: “Councilmember Barry Demands an Apology from Mayor Gray for Low Student Test Scores” —Headline on 2011 Barry press release
The solution: “Members who demand apologies for hardships demonstrably beyond the control of the person asked to apologize shall be excluded from meetings until they themselves apologize.”