This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
A proposal to bring unprecedented oversight to the way that the Democratic National Committee spends the billion dollars it raises between presidential elections was rejected by the DNC Rules and Bylaw Committee Tuesday, after a spirited debate highlighting that there is no independent oversight reporting back to the DNC’s 450 members.
The decision did not come without some Rules Committee members saying that the oversight issue was legitimate. But they did not feel that creating a new elected committee to review the DNC’s spending decisions was the best approach. The oversight proposal was the last piece of business from the DNC’s post-2016 Unity Reform Commission recommendations, which sought to heal the party’s internal divides after that cycle.
“I am disappointed,” said Jim Zogby, a longtime DNC member and Arab-American human rights leader, who noted that Tuesday’s proposal was the latest in a series of efforts to introduce greater transparency and oversight before 2020’s election.
“We are clearly out of time on it,” he said. “But what I don’t think we are out of time on is empowering the membership and becoming a more accountable and transparent organization. And I don’t think that can be done unless it’s done in a democratic way through election of an independent group of members. I will be back, if I’m on the DNC, to raise it again.”
Zogby, who has been a DNC member for nearly three decades and has served on its top national party committees for half that time, reminded the Rules Committee that very few people in the DNC have any real impact on how the party spends its money.
“Look, I’ve been a DNC member—this is my 27th year. I was an executive committee member for 16 years. The issue of never seeing the budget, never being able as a member to evaluate the budget, sticks in my craw. I think it should stick in the craw of every member of the body,” he said. “At the end of the day, the ability to know how money is spent, and have some say in it, or, at least, as the [DNC] bylaws call for, to evaluate it, is essential for the governing body of any organization.”
“We shouldn’t have to wait for an exposé article to be written or a book to come out to tell us that there was a problem,” he continued. “We have to govern ourselves. We have to be able to, say, among ourselves, ‘I don’t like the way this loan got taken out.’ ‘I don’t like who got that contract.’ And it’s not a question of micromanaging.”
Some Rules Committee members were sympathetic to the concerns raised by Zogby on behalf of the Unity Reform Commission, but said that creating another committee to independently review spending decisions by the DNC Budget and Finance Committee was not the best way to achieve that goal.
“I strongly share the view that the DNC should be more transparent in terms of its budget and financial activity,” said Frank Leone, a Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) member from Virginia. “I don’t think this is the way to do it, though. It seems that creating a new committee and, basically, to second-guess the work of the DNC, I’m not quite sure is the best approach… And I think things have changed a lot in the last two years and that has to be recognized.”
Leone’s last point was referring to the current DNC leadership, under Chair Tom Perez, saying that the party’s spending has been much more transparent and accountable than in previous years. Another objection came from David McDonald, an RBC member from Washington, who said looking retrospectively could distract from current campaigns.
“If you just look at the cycle we are in right now, instead of focusing on the presidential election in 2020, it [the proposed oversight panel] would be in the process of gathering information about what we did in 2018, and discussing it, and trying to evaluate in the context of all of the other entities that were spending money in 2018,” he said. “It’s basically a proposal to have an independent entity do what the Budget Committee is already supposed to do.”
Zogby countered that retrospective oversight was a compromise intended to not interfere with the DNC’s current efforts. But he kept returning to his main point: that there was no substitute for independent oversight of the DNC’s overall spending decisions.
“The [DNC] chair simply cannot appoint the committee that oversees the finances of the chair and the expenditures that are determined by the chair. That simply makes no sense,” he said. “We would not get into trouble—and we have had trouble—if the Finance Committee… [had had] an oversight committee that can do the due diligence and report back to us, ‘This happened. That happened. This didn’t happen. That didn’t happen. We make these recommendations for the future.’”
Don Fowler, an RBC member from South Carolina and a former DNC chair (1995-1997), said the issue was that DNC members tended to be afraid of confronting their national party chair.
“The lack of appropriate supervision, if one wants to make that charge, of the chair and the administration in every DNC since [former chair] Bob Strauss [1972-1977], has been a reluctance to confront the chair—period. That’s the holdup,” he said. “If you create this new committee, the same thing will happen. The DNC has never confronted the chair about the matter of spending, and even the suggestions as to what should go into the budget have been almost non-existent.”
Zogby countered that wasn’t always true. In his prior efforts organizing ethnic caucuses inside the DNC, he said that he has repeatedly been able to get neither support nor answers about withholding financial support. But Donna Brazile, an RBC member from Washington who has been interim party chair, twice agreed that the real issue was strengthening the DNC’s top committees to challenge the chair—and possible White House pressures.
“I understand the frustration as well as the goals of the Unity Reform Committee in terms of trying to ascertain how the DNC can become a more transparent body, especially during an election year when we have the White House,” Brazile said. “And the White House, in many ways, is also dictating and controlling how decisions are being made—strategic decisions as well as how day-to-day operations of the party are being made.”
“We don’t need an oversight committee,” she said. “We need to strengthen the executive committee and the current budget committee to do their job—to provide accountability; to provide transparency. I don’t know about many of you, but when I was on the executive committee, I challenged the chair. I didn’t always win. And when I was [DNC] chair, both times, they challenged me.”
“But, Jim, you’re right, there are decisions that I made as chair from that interim period of 2016-2017, as well as 2011-2012, that the only institution that I had to reply to was the White House, and then, of course, the nominee,” she continued. “I would hope that we would find ways to take some of this [oversight proposal] language and strengthen existing apparatus that we have, because I do believe we are on that path that you’d like to see us on.”
But Zogby, in response, said that accountability, “no matter how cumbersome,” was the hallmark of democratic institutions. Friendly and unfriendly party chairs can come and go, he said, but that wasn’t the same as formally instituted oversight.
“The fact that the existing [Budget and Finance] Committee has improved their work is something that all Democrats should feel good about,” he said. “But none of that is the same as oversight. And that is the fundamental distinction. They [the Finance Committee] make the decisions and do all that stuff. At the end of the day, the empowered body of DNC members ought to have the opportunity to, in a structured way—not a meeting of 450 people [members]—to ask questions and come up with some recommendations independently of that committee.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.