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Ending pay-to-play in D.C.

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UNLESS A JUDGE overrules a decision by the D.C. Board of Elections, a proposal that would ban direct corporate donations in D.C. political campaigns won’t go before voters in November. That means that any hope for much-needed campaign finance reform would rest with the very people who have tended to benefit from the District’s lax policy and practices.

So it was encouraging to see D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) press the D.C. Council for action on this critical issue with the release of a package of proposed reforms. If council members are serious about cleaning up the District’s besmirched government, they will make this matter the first order of business when they return from summer recess this month.

Mr. Gray on Tuesday unveiled what was billed as comprehensive campaign finance legislation. It targets practices in which businesses make contributions to a candidate’s political campaign or an officeholder’s constituent services fund in the hopes of getting lucrative government contracts. The legislation, drafted by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, falls short of the complete ban on corporate giving that activists who wanted to put the matter up for referendum had envisioned, but it does contain improved protections and reporting requirements.

Foremost is a provision that would bar those who have or are seeking significant ($250,000 or more) contracts or grants from contributing to any official or candidate who could be involved in the approval process. Bundling by registered lobbyists would be prohibited, money orders of more than $25 would be banned, and stronger disclosure requirements would go into effect to prevent circumventing maximum contribution limits. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that had input into the plan, said the mayor’s pay-to-play reforms, if adopted, would be among the strongest in the nation.

What’s on the books matters little if enforcement is lax, so the legislation rightly gives the attorney general new authority to prosecute some criminal violations. Part of the current problem is the dismal job done by the city’s Office of Campaign Finance in policing political campaigns. Perhaps, as Mr. Nathan has argued, the office’s failings are the result of insufficient resources, although it’s hard to see how that accounts for perplexing decisions like the recent pass given to D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) in filing campaign financial reports.

The mayor’s proposal comes at a time when his own 2010 mayoral campaign is under federal investigation. But Mr. Gray and Mr. Nathan are right to say that the proposed legislation should be judged on its merits. We hope the council, which has voted down restrictions on corporate giving, will decide to embrace the principles of heightened accountability and transparency enshrined in this proposal.

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