THE D.C. COUNCIL apparently will end this year without enacting campaign finance reform. That the council didn’t have the time — the excuse offered for inaction — speaks to a distressing lack of urgency in addressing this critical issue. Even more worrisome, it suggests a reluctance among those who benefit from the slack regulation of political dollars to fix a system that has helped perpetuate the District’s “pay-to-play” culture.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) announced last week that there likely would be no action this month on comprehensive campaign finance legislation proposed in September by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). The package of reforms, crafted by Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, targets practices in which businesses contribute to political campaigns or constituent-service funds in hopes of influencing government contracts. The mayor’s proposal would close loopholes that allow businesses to circumvent limits and would provide for greater transparency. Public Citizen, the nonprofit consumer advocacy group that helped guide Mr. Nathan’s approach, said the restrictions on pay-to-play, if adopted, would be among the strongest in the nation.
So it was more than a little discouraging to hear council members express worries, during work sessions on the mayor’s proposal, about the extra burdens the new rules might place on candidates or contributors. The hardship individuals might face in raising campaign funds should take a back seat to restoring integrity to a system that gives outsize influence to those seeking to do business with the city. The wariness with which the mayor’s proposal was greeted is, unfortunately, not new. When council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) tried last year to crack down on corporate donations as part of the council’s overhaul of ethics, he got nowhere. The effort for a ballot referendum to ban corporate donations has generally gotten a cold shoulder from council members.
The D.C. Board of Elections’ invalidation of petition signatures, which has kept the question off the ballot, is being challenged in court, but Bryan Weaver, who is helping to lead the effort, told us he had hoped the council would make moot the need for citizen action. Originally skeptical of the mayor’s proposal, Mr. Weaver now calls it a thoughtful and useful step in the right direction.
A council that has just weathered one of the worst years in its history, with the forced resignations of two members who pleaded guilty to felonies and others caught up in ethical transgressions, would do well to start the new year with a resolve to give more than lip service to campaign finance reform.