June 2, 2013

THE D.C. COUNCIL steered clear of campaign finance reform when it overhauled ethics laws in 2011. It promised not to ignore the matter but said complex issues were involved that required careful study. Well, another election season is underway and the loophole that allows well-heeled contributors to skirt campaign limits still exists, as do other problems that feed the District’s pay-to-play culture.

The compelling need for campaign finance reform was underscored by a recent investigation by WAMU-FM that examined the relationship between campaign donations and real estate subsidies. Reporters Julie Patel and Patrick Madden found that the 10 developers who donated the most campaign cash received a third of public subsidies over the last decade; 12 developers donated the most campaign cash the year their subsidy was approved. D.C. law caps campaign contributions at $500 for most council races and $2,000 for mayoral campaigns, but companies use limited liability firms and other affiliates to bundle multiple contributions, in a mockery of the legal limits.

Proposed legislation to curb this practice and bring other needed reforms — such as banning lobbyists from bundling and barring contributions from those who have or seek valuable contracts from the District government — has (and we are being charitable here) languished in the council. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) submitted a sensible package of reforms crafted by Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan last August, in plenty of time to be enacted before next year’s mayoral and council elections. But, save for a smattering of public hearings, no action has been taken. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who inherited the issue this year as chair of the committee overseeing elections, told us he hopes to mark up a campaign finance bill before the council adjourns for the summer in July, but no specifics have been released.

Whether Mr. McDuffie will be able to get the support needed to push through reforms is unclear. What is clear is that the council hasn’t been in a hurry to act and that its members — including some who plan to run in primaries that could take place as early as April 1 — can meanwhile benefit from a system that makes it easier to raise money from interests who may hope they’ll get something in return.