June 17, 2011

Money, the lust for it and its hold on the weak and greedy have distorted D.C. political life. Case in point: the scandal-plagued John A. Wilson Building.

A stroll down memory lane will take us to the starting point.

After passing the D.C. Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress realized that there were no local regulations in place to govern the city’s first election for mayor and council in 1974. It was during the Watergate scandal, which brought to light the corrosive effect of large sums in political campaigns. So a bipartisan group in the House and Senate decided to fashion campaign finance legislation for the city that contained limits on money in D.C. elections.

I know because I was on Capitol Hill at the time, working as minority staff director of the Senate District of Columbia Committee. I also had a hand in drafting the D.C. Campaign Finance Reform and Conflict of Interest Act of 1974. In retrospect, our efforts were strikingly naive.

We thought that placing strict limits on campaign contributions and spending, and imposing tough disclosure rules, would be well received in a city having its first partisan elections in 104 years. How silly of us.

Many of the city’s fledging politicians didn’t like it one bit. The 1974 law limited spending on the mayoral race to $200,000. All campaign expenditures of $10 or more had to be reported and itemized in regular campaign reports to the Board of Elections and Ethics. Individual contributions to mayoral candidates were limited to $1,000, for D.C. Council chairman candidates to $750, and for at-large council candidates to $500.

As a result, the city’s first elected mayor, Walter E. Washington, spent about $184,000 getting elected. The first elected council chairman, Sterling Tucker, collected and spent little more than $60,000 that year.

All of that took place before the city’s politicians assumed limited home-rule powers, including the writing of campaign-finance laws. Since 1975, the opportunities to rake in the dough from private donors and special interests in the District have taken on the spirit of “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” or “Let the good times roll!”

In 1992, elected city officials doubled the individual contribution limits in the contests for mayor to $2,000, for council chairman candidates to $1,500 and for at-large council hopefuls to $1,000.

That was done despite the fact that in a 1992 referendum, D.C. voters set limits of $100 for individual contributions to candidates for mayor, council chairman and at-large council members, and $50 for ward candidates. Citizens be damned, said D.C. pols.

City leaders also have created slush accounts for themselves called “constituent service funds,” which allow each council member and the mayor to annually raise and spend a maximum of $80,000, all collected through private donations. The purpose of the funds is to provide services to residents. According to city records, some of the council members do use their funds to help hard-pressed citizens with utility bills, food, burial expenses and the like.

But, The Post reported in 2007, several members used their funds to pay for neighborhood events, buy school and civic association advertisements, and fund refreshments for community meetings — the kind of “feel-good contributions that help politicians get reelected” — the story noted. D.C. Office of Campaign Finance regulations governing constituent services funds say the money “may not be used . . . for political purposes.” Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Were that not enough, city legislators, in a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement, created a scheme to circumvent the merit-based, competitive allocation process for public money. They earmarked public funds for pet projects and special groups. City records also show that some of the projects’ beneficiaries have ended up as contributors to the sponsoring legislator’s reelection campaign. That scheme was supposed to have ended last year with then-chairman Vincent Gray’s proposal to eliminate earmarks. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Walter Washington’s 1974 victory with an $184,000 war chest pales in contrast to the $5 million collected by Mayor Adrian Fenty and the $2.8 million received by his challenger, council Chairman Gray, in their Democratic primary fight last September.

Last year, local officeholders seeking election collectively raked in nearly $8 million in campaign contributions, and they collectively spent $7.7 million on their races.

The money sloshing around in the city these days is as amazing as it is unsettling. Money greases the way to access and influence. Money drowns the citizen’s voice. Money and politics, as one political observer put it, are an evil brew. The pot is stirring in our city.

kingc@washpost.com