Bureaucratic Socialists of America
A DSA Observer Debrief of the National Political Committee’s Actions in March 2022 and their Use of Executive Session
Our task is organizing. Let us begin by organizing ourselves. We demand democracy and socialism. We shall have neither if we cannot bring them to pass in our own political home.
I wanted to provide an analysis of the actions and reactions of the National Political Committee (“NPC”) of the Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”), based on the laws of the District of Columbia, our Articles of Incorporation, Constitution, Bylaws, Resolutions, and parliamentary authority (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, (“RONR”) in how they dealt with the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (“BDS WG”), and their general use of Executive Session. I intend to demonstrate how certain practices and actions of the NPC are out-of-step with the character and principles of a self-proclaimed democratic socialist organization.
I hope this provides members with a better understanding of the rules that govern our organization, and how easily their power as members can be diluted when people granted positions of authority fail in their duty as stewards and good governors. My analysis focuses solely on the acts of the NPC as they are the executive board of our organization, and between conventions all responsibilities, obligations, and demands rest with them. My intent is to demonstrate that the acts and omissions of the NPC reveal a pattern of troubling dysfunction and poor judgment.
The NPC’s practices are undemocratic.
The NPC’s use of executive sessions is unconstitutional.
The NPC makes decisions outside of regularly called meetings open to membership observation and comment.
The NPC does not have the authority to “decharter” working groups.
The NPC must own and correct these mistakes for the sake of DSA’s democracy.
1. The NPC’s Practices Are Undemocratic.
DSA is a tax-exempt, non-profit, 501(c)4 organization incorporated in Washington, DC. The highest decision-making body in DSA is the National Convention (“Convention”), a gathering of elected delegates that happens biennially. The National Political Committee is “the highest decision-making body of the organization between meetings of the Convention” (Const. Art. 8, Sec. 1). The NPC is elected at the biennial convention using a procedure set by the Credentials and Elections Committee.1
At the 2017 DSA Convention, delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (“BDS”) movement. At the 2019 DSA Convention, delegates also passed by a large margin a resolution to create a BDS Working Group (“WG”) to carry out the work called for by Palestinian civil society.
On Friday, March 19, 2022, the NPC announced on the DSA Discussion Forum that the BDS WG was to be “dechartered2” effective immediately and its functions moved to the International Committee (“IC”). Additionally, they announced the suspension of the BDS WG leadership from any other leadership position in DSA for one year. They failed to provide any guidance or plan as to how this transition would happen.
Though this decision was later reversed in part less than a week later, the lead up, execution, and so-called rescission of the act to “de-charter” the WG is tainted at every step by undemocratic actions. These actions exploit weaknesses in the internal governance of DSA that expose it to undue and unnecessary risk that not only contradicts our stated values but also imperils the continued effectiveness of the organization.
Just as the NPC claimed that the BDS WG misrepresented their secret Bowman talks without any evidence, the majority again resort to spurious, unsupported claims against a fellow board member. And again, their punishment exceeds their authority. This constitutes a pattern of abuse that raises serious questions as to whether or not the board’s majority is competent enough to lead DSA.
While what follows is an account of how the BDS WG was first liquidated, then partially restored without its leadership, the justification in this case and NPC delegate Jen B’s is the same: a claim by the majority that a secret meeting is being misrepresented by the minority, without evidence and with full awareness that no objective record of events exists. Those who govern by catch-22 are in no position to govern at all.
The problems with the NPC’s retaliation against Jen Bolen, in limiting her access to grievance-related material, could fill another article. But first, we can address what the majority did in the recent past, so this pattern becomes clear and irrefutable.
a. The NPC’s Use of Executive Sessions is Unconstitutional
The inciting incident for the move to dissolve the BDS WG was the refusal of the WG to delete certain tweets3 that criticized the NPC in regard to their handling of the demand to expel Rep. Jamal Bowman from DSA. The NPC wrote on Friday, March 19 on the DSA Discussion Forum:
On February 18th, the NPC Steering Committee asked the steering committee of the BDS & Palestine Solidarity Working Group to take down a thread on [T]witter. The reason for asking the thread to be taken down was that it contained misinformation about what Bowman’s office told DSA in an off-the-record meeting and that it violated the Code of Conduct (by making accusations instead of “sharing analysis and opinions”) and the Code of Conduct’s expectation that debates be “conducted with civility and respect, as comrades committed to the same struggle.
With respect, “misinformation about what Bowman’s office told DSA in an off-the-record meeting,” is a nonsensical phrase. Misinformation is not proven because the NPC says so. Misinformation is proven when a statement can be demonstrated to be false or misleading. It is one thing to act with actual malice, with reckless disregard for the truth, and another thing entirely to not know what the truth is because it is being actively obscured. It is difficult to provide accurate analysis of secret information, and perhaps opinions and debates would be more civil and respectful if relevant details were not improperly hidden behind closed doors.
I must reiterate that the allegation of misinformation is very serious, but the NPC does not provide us, the members, with the means to adjudicate that claim. Misinformation implies deception through negligence or malice. This could easily be proved through the NPC disclosing the relevant information from the off-the-record meeting. The fact that it was not disclosed, even to the members in a post excoriating the BDS WG, is telling.
The use of off-the-record meetings to discuss the business of DSA is not supported by our rules. The DSA Constitution provides for executive session in two places, and for two reasons:
In person meetings of the [NPC Steering Committee] shall be open to all members of the organization. However, the SC may hold executive sessions if 60% of its members vote to do so in order to discuss personnel and related financial matters. (Const. Art. 8, Sec. 3)
Meetings of the NPC shall be open to all members of the organization. However, the NPC may hold executive sessions if 60% of its members vote to do so in order to discuss personnel and related financial matters. (Const. Art. 8, Sec. 6)
Bear in mind that this refers to the meetings and decisions of the NPC SC and NPC itself, and not any other confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements that bind members of our organization that are outside the scope of these constitutional provisions.
The fact that there are two and only two legitimate reasons for being in executive session is supported by Robert’s Rules, the controlling parliamentary authority4 of our organization. From the section on interpretation:
A general statement or rule is always of less authority than a specific statement or rule and yields to it. It is not practical to state a rule in its full detail every time it is referred to. General statements of rules are seldom strictly correct in every possible application. The specific statement of the rule that gives the details applying to the particular case must always be examined.
If the bylaws authorize certain things specifically, other things of the same class are thereby prohibited. There is a presumption that nothing has been placed in the bylaws without some reason for it. There can be no valid reason for authorizing certain things to be done that can clearly be done without the authorization of the bylaws, unless the intent is to specify the things of the same class that may be done, all others being prohibited (RONR 12th ed. 56:68).
So, the class of things is “acceptable reasons to have an executive session.” There are a few things that could belong in that class: personnel and related finances, hearings of members facing expulsion, grievance appeal hearings, discussions that could compromise the immediate health and safety of members, etc. Unfortunately, there are only two reasons named, and the other reasons, no matter how good and compelling they may be, are technically prohibited. The concern about the abuse of executive sessions arises specifically because there are only two named reasons. We need to amend our constitution to conform with our practices or conform our practices with our constitution.
Finally, if the NPC will claim in their own words to be DSA when bargaining with Rep. Bowman’s staff, then what are they when they refuse to share the details of that meeting with the rest of us? How can DSA conceal a secret from itself? If the NPC has made commitments, given concessions, and made decisions in our name in the course of doing politics, then we have the right to know what they’ve done on behalf of more than 90,000 members. How can we be expected to trust what we cannot verify? Organizing is impossible in such an environment.
The NPC must reveal the terms and conditions regarding the continued endorsement of Rep. Bowman to the members immediately. This is the political question at the heart of the controversy, and they can no longer administratively obscure it. The members deserve to know if their leaders have made a deal they can live with. To act otherwise is to treat DSA with contempt.
b. The NPC Makes Decisions Outside of Regularly Called Meetings Open to Membership Observation and Comment
Currently, members receive the results of NPC decisions via post on the discussion forum, if at all, after voting on critical issues electronically outside meetings. This is not democratic, as democracy is not the mere act of voting itself. Executive boards like the NPC are intended to be deliberative bodies, with the opportunity for the general membership to observe and comment on the proceedings.
DC law requires non-profit corporations to hold regular meetings, a fact reflected in the DSA Constitution and Bylaws5 which require a minimum of four meetings per year. DC law also requires that actions by the board of directors of nonprofits (in DSA’s case the NPC) take place in meetings6. In addition, RONR says decisions should be made in meetings, electronic or otherwise7. However, the NPC largely ignores the democratic principle expressed in the rules that says decisions should be made in meetings.
For example, the NPC (excluding its Steering Committee) has taken 184 votes as of June 2022, according to data provided to members by the Secretary-Treasurer. Of those 184 recorded and available votes, only 23 of them occurred in a properly called meeting, the 2022 meetings of the whole NPC. This means that at best, less than 11 percent of whole-NPC decisions were made in meetings open to membership.
The vast majority of votes are conducted with Loomio, an online tool, with deliberation, if any, happening over email, outside of member inspection and observation. These facts show that about 89 percent of the decisions taken by the highest decision-making body between conventions are happening without member oversight. This is a flagrantly undemocratic practice.
The governing law is Title 29, Chapter 4 (Nonprofit corporations) of the Code of the District of Columbia. It has two relevant provisions:
§ 29–406.20. Meetings.
(a) The board of directors may hold regular or special meetings in or outside of the District.
(b) Unless the articles of incorporation or bylaws provide otherwise, the board of directors may permit any or all directors to participate in a regular or special meeting by, or conduct the meeting through the use of, any means of communication by which all directors participating may simultaneously hear each other during the meeting. A director participating in a meeting by this means shall be considered to be present in person at the meeting.
§ 29–406.21. Action without meeting.
(a) Except to the extent that the articles of incorporation or bylaws require that action by the board of directors be taken at a meeting, action required or permitted by this chapter to be taken by the board of directors may be taken without a meeting if each director signs a consent in the form of a record describing the action to be taken and delivers it to the nonprofit corporation.
(b) Action taken under this section shall be the act of the board of directors when one or more consents signed by all the directors are delivered to the nonprofit corporation. The consent may specify the time at which the action taken in the consent is to be effective. A director’s consent may be withdrawn by a revocation in the form of a record signed by the director and delivered to the corporation prior to delivery to the corporation of unrevoked consents signed by all the directors.
(c) A consent signed under this section has the effect of action taken at a meeting of the board of directors and may be described as such in any document.
A board may take specific actions outside of a meeting only with the unanimous written consent of all members. Each decision made outside of a meeting must have its own separate and unanimous consent of all board members. Nothing in the code prevents organizations from adopting other methods of voting outside of meetings. However, those methods must be in the articles of incorporation or bylaws, as per the above. No such provision exists in either of those documents for the NPC.
Flowing from that, all non-unanimous decisions made by the NPC with Loomio or any other method that records votes in writing are without effect until properly ratified by the whole NPC at a properly called meeting. Again, we have a situation where we must adapt our practices to match the rule or change the rule to match our practices.
When the NPC is in the habit of legislating without input, and deciding things summarily outside member oversight, it begins to govern through domination and not persuasion, a terrible problem to have in a volunteer organization.
Sam H-L of Red Star SF, a caucus in the San Francisco chapter of DSA, sums this up as “an administrative problem that exacerbates political tension within the organization.” By abrogating its duty to be a deliberative body, the NPC is needlessly inflaming divisions and escalating conflict in the organization they ostensibly lead. When deliberations are held behind closed doors with no opportunity nor solicitation for rank-and-file member input or observation, the NPC abandons the democratic principles of our organization.
In fact, a cursory review of the minutes of the NPC and the Steering Committee reveals that there have been no on-the-record meetings regarding Rep. Bowman’s endorsement or membership. The NPC has, through its bureaucratic actions, twisted a political question of endorsement and membership into a process and rules based question, all while trampling on the rules themselves. This contradiction is why this piece exists in the first place.
Sam also demands that “the NPC operate democratically, moving to strict parliamentary procedure facilitated by a chair who has a strong knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.” Sam also calls on the NPC to redirect its focus to prioritize chapter engagement over national campaigns. I want to echo those calls and emphasize the fact that the NPC has failed to engage the chapters or members as a whole on this issue. Instead of deliberating and seeking advice from chapters and members on a matter of national and international importance, the NPC has used executive sessions and off-the-record meetings to make its choices. The predictable result is a letter signed by more than 1200 rank-and-file members and 25 DSA and YDSA chapters denouncing their rule by fiat.
DSA is not the state, it is a voluntary membership organization. We should not have to beg members of the NPC with open letters and tweets in order to make our voices heard. In a democratic formation, we make our voices heard through participation. The right and privilege to participate in DSA does not end with the closing of the convention. The NPC is not crowned, it is delegated with an important responsibility to foster democracy in the world and in DSA itself. The delegates do not disappear when the convention ends, and the members are more than a figure to tout in a membership drive. The NPC does not make these decisions in a vacuum and ignores their constituents at their own peril.
Any voluntary organization should always strive to make decisions that are as broadly acceptable to as many members as possible, through democratic means. This is how socialists resolve contentious and divisive issues. The NPC should actively seek out advice and input from DSA members on all issues, not just this one. Sadly, in this case, the NPC has actively obscured this political debate and denied the right to participate. This was a monumental strategic error.
2. The NPC does not have the Authority to “Decharter” Working Groups
The NPC used the term “decharter.” So, I searched our bylaws for “charter.” The bylaws have provisions for revoking the charter of locals (Article 3, Section 4) regional/state organizations (Article 4, Section 5) and the youth section (Article 5, Section 4)8. They are silent on commissions, working groups, and committees. The lack of clarity around non-chapter DSA entities is a problem that the NPC identified prior to the 2021 convention, and they cite NPC Recommendation #3 as their authority to take adverse action against the BDS WG. The NPC’s statement says:
Following this mandate [NPC Recommendation #3], NPC passed National Committee Criteria in the Fall. Given that national committees and working groups require staff time, NPC’s time, and member-funded resources, this marked an important milestone in ensuring that these official DSA bodies remain accountable to the organization and serve its goals, so we can most effectively coordinate and follow through on the important work our members have democratically tasked the national organization to carry out. In other words, it marked an important step in ensuring our internal democratic processes are meaningful.
The BDS Working Group’s failure to comply with the National Committee Criteria, paired with a pattern of misconduct and misuse of an official DSA body by the working group’s leadership, is why the NPC has decided to decharter [sic] the working group. We believe that it is imperative for DSA to continue BDS and Palestine solidarity work and are charging the International Committee with this responsibility.
But the NPC cannot fabricate new powers that require explicit authorization of the membership, or a constitutional or bylaws amendment, through a resolution that does not explicitly grant them that power. From Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised:
In any event, no action of the board can alter or conflict with any decision made by the assembly of the society, and any such action of the board is null and void. Except in matters placed by the bylaws exclusively under the control of the board, the society’s assembly can give the board instructions which it must carry out, and can rescind or amend any action of the board if it is not too late (RONR 12th ed. 49:7).
A board may never alter a decision of the society’s assembly (and an executive committee may never alter a decision of either the assembly or the board), even by a motion to Rescind or Amend Something Previously Adopted or by adoption of a proposal which has been rejected, unless expressly authorized by the superior body or by the bylaws. Thus, for example, if it is desired that the assembly adopt an annual budget but that the board be empowered to alter it to deal with contingencies that may develop, the bylaws (or the budget resolution) must specifically confer this power on the board (RONR 12th ed. 56:41).
In other words, in “dechartering” the BDS WG, the NPC claims powers they were never entrusted with. The practical reason for these rules is simple: our votes matter, and it ceases to be a democracy the moment we choose to ignore this. The resolution that created the BDS Working Group in 2019 is short:
Be it resolved that the Democratic Socialists of America establish a national working group dedicated to BDS and Palestine Solidarity;
Be it resolved that the National will allow autonomous leadership and membership of said working group;
Be it resolved that the National will reaffirm BDS and Palestine solidarity as a priority for the national organization and further commit itself to organizing in solidarity with the BDS movement, which urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it meets three demands: ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
By “dechartering” the group and moving its functions into the International Committee the NPC has illegitimately negated the instructions of the organization’s highest body. And no matter what the NPC feels about their organizing relationship, the rules are not written for their convenience. Again, the rules exist for the protection of our member’s rights and our internal democratic processes.
Notwithstanding the behavior of certain members that may or may not merit sanction or disciplinary action, things that are well within the NPC’s scope, the revocation of the Working Group’s charter is decidedly out of scope. The NPC is claiming a mandate that does not exist, and powers they were not granted. In other words, if the NPC wanted the authority to revoke committee, working group, or commission charters, they should have asked for it in 2021.
Further, these actions are inconsistent with NPC Recommendation #3, which says “there may be an NPC vote to revoke, or approve, a committee’s chaired status, at any time,” and nothing about revoking charters, dissolving groups, or transferring the functions of any group.
Finally, the NPC cannot enforce National Committee Criteria as written without approval of the membership as several provisions, like the revocation of charters, exceed the scope defined in 2021’s NPC Recommendation #3. The NPC was merely given the authority to draft the plan, it is up to the members to approve it. It is undemocratic and unconstitutional for the NPC to illegitimately claim a grant of authority the members did not explicitly give them.
The origin of the BDS Working Group is clear: it was created by the highest decision-making body of the organization itself, the Convention. It can only be dissolved or modified by the same body through explicit and specific instructions, per RONR. In any case, the final interpretation of these rules and resolutions will always rest with the Convention, and not the NPC.
3. The NPC Must Own and Correct These Mistakes for the Sake of DSA’s Democracy
The NPC needs to understand that its actions were never proper, from top to bottom. They were wrong when they held off-the-record meetings with the WG, with Bowman or his office or both, and amongst themselves. They were wrong when they voted outside of properly called meetings, depriving members of their democratic right to participate or observe. They were wrong when they made the move to revoke a charter granted by the organization’s highest authority, without explicit authorization to do so. The NPC never had a decision to reverse: the decision was made outside a meeting, outside the instructions of the Convention, and outside the view of the members. This rises beyond a harm, interpersonal or otherwise, it is a cause of action. It exposes DSA to legal risk, and potential damages.
For the reasons I have stated above, I believe the NPC’s move to “decharter” the BDS Working Group is null and void, and it is incumbent upon them to fix this mistake. Fortunately, Robert’s Rules tells us what to do in precisely this situation:
If the executive board of a society takes action that exceeds the board’s instructions or authority, that conflicts with a decision made by the assembly of the society, or that falls under any of the categories listed in 23:6, a point of order can be raised at a board meeting at any time during the continuance of the breach. If the point of order is sustained, the action must be declared null and void. Alternatively, the society’s assembly can adopt an incidental main motion by majority vote declaring that the board’s action is null and void; or, if it is affecting business at a meeting of the assembly, the board’s action can be declared null and void by a ruling of the chair relating to the affected business or on a relevant point of order raised by a member. It is also possible for the assembly to bring disciplinary measures against the board members who voted for the improper action (RONR 12th ed. 23:9).
The correct and proper action is to vacate the decision, not reverse or rescind it. The distinction is important: the former recognizes the anti-democratic error; the latter actually continues the breach of good order by implying the board acted within its authority when it categorically did not. This is just one of the things the NPC can do to restore confidence.
Another thing the NPC can do to correct its mistakes is end the abuse of executive session and have proper deliberation on political questions in the sunlight, with the members. And as stated before, the NPC can finally disclose the terms and conditions in regard to Rep. Bowman. The NPC should have the courage of its convictions. If the deal is right and proper, they should be proud to share it. Hiding it only exposes the NPC, and DSA as a whole, to conjecture and attacks and reinforces a culture of distrust and recrimination.
The essence of bureaucratism is someone else deciding for you. A democratic socialist organization should value its members as the source of its power, in and of itself, and not as a mere means to an end. The NPC must respect the people who elected them enough to actively seek their input, resolve contradictions in a principled and broadly acceptable manner, and to do it all transparently. This is a volunteer organization. People will and have left it because it isn’t accountable to its members. Nothing keeps the dues flowing but confidence in the direction of the organization and its leaders.
I wrote at the beginning that my analysis would focus solely on the actions of our elected leadership. This is because the responsibility of stewardship falls on their shoulders. They are the ones who expose themselves to risk, who signed up for the duty, and willingly took the mantle to lead. Others can and will provide their own perspectives on different matters and different actors in this episode. But I believe it appropriate to start with the executive elected leadership of DSA.
There are many reforms that the membership may adopt to improve the internal democracy of DSA, and member-delegates will need to seriously consider large structural changes to the NPC, such as its expansion at the next Convention, and reconsider a standing deliberative body within DSA that can tackle controversial issues. Proposals include activating the currently inoperative National Advisory Committee already written into the Constitution9. A review of these various ideas, past and present, are best addressed in their own piece. But based on this debrief, there are immediate actions the NPC can take now to restore confidence and correct errors:
Comply with the democratically adopted rules of DSA.
End the abuse of executive session and when it is used, tell the members which of the two constitutional reasons the NPC or SC was in executive session in the minutes.
Demonstrate knowledge of the organization’s constitution and bylaws
Strictly adhere to parliamentary procedure and RONR
Declare their action to “de-charter” the BDS WG as null and void, not as a rescission or reversal.
Resolve the dispute between NPC and the BDS WG constructively.
Commit to third-party mediation on interpersonal conflicts.
Consider an independent committee of members chosen by the NPC and BDS WG to repair relationships with Palestinian solidarity organizations.
Clarify if BDS WG Steering Committee members may continue to serve in their roles or not.10
Reorient towards chapter and member engagement.
Invite member comment in more frequent NPC meetings structured around actual motions before the committee.
Activate the dormant National Advisory Committee11 to assist the NPC’s decision-making, with members from different tendencies appointed in accordance with existing diversity requirements.
Publish the agenda of any NPC or SC meetings well in advance to encourage member attendance.
Instead of email, use the DSA Discussion Forum to discuss motions, as the Austin, TX City Council does with their forum.
Release meeting minutes on a rolling basis: publish unofficial minutes as soon as they are ready, marked as unapproved and unofficial, and the properly ratified versions shall continue to serve as the authoritative records.
It will take time to repair the damage from these events. Organizing is based on trust, and trust is a practice. That practice can be learned by referring to our parliamentary authorities, being honest in our dealings, and choosing to be transparent. As long as there are members who care about democratic, rules-based governance, these mistakes can be corrected, and we will flourish. We must make our chapters and national organization a place where ordinary people can actually experience the form and substance of governance by the people.
Chris Wang is a member of Seattle DSA. Portions of this piece are adapted from a previous work, “In Defense of DSA’s Democracy,” dated March 19, 2022. Special thanks to Allison H. of Metro DC DSA for her assistance.
This gloss of DSA’s basic structure is adapted from this memo about the circumstances surrounding the election of Kara Hall to the 2021-2023 NPC.
“Decharter” will appear in quotes as it is the term the NPC used, despite the fact it is not a dictionary word and placing it in quotations is fewer characters than using (sic) in each instance. A more appropriate term would be “to dissolve,” “revoke the charter of,” or similar term of art found in RONR.
“Our demands of them are to provide the password to staff (not NPC), follow the social media policy, and delete a thread with misinformation in it. If they can't do that, then we should attempt this. We should ask Twitter if they will simply give us the twitter account rather than suspending it. We could provide a formal resolution of the board (NPC),” wrote former NPC member Matt Miller, in regard to the punitive action to ask Twitter to suspend the BDS WG account, “approved” by the whole NPC outside of a meeting on 02/23/2022.
DSA Const. Art. 12
DSA Const. Art. 8, Sec. 1
DC Code § 29–406.21(a)
RONR 12th ed. 9:30
Revoking the charter of a local, a regional/state organization, or YDSA, is a simple majority vote of the NPC or the convention.
DSA Const. Art. 9
Records indicate that the initial vote to suspend WG leadership from the BDS WG itself failed, while the vote to ban WG leadership from holding other leadership posts in DSA carried. The later vote to reverse the decision to recharter carried, while a parallel vote to reverse the ban failed.
DSA Const. Art. 9
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