The Washington Post

Vincent Gray gets serious about campaign finance reform

Nathan wasn’t shy about decrying “pay to play” perception. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

For an embattled public official eager to show he’s serious about regaining the public trust, it was an odd choice. But Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) picked today for a hearing on a trio of previous campaign finance proposals, and Gray wasn’t postponing his big China trip.

That said — and, also said, that Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan brought no actual legislation to the hearing today — Gray’s proposal is sweeping and serious, drawing on deep research into campaign finance laws elsewhere.

How serious is it? For one, Nathan repeatedly used the term “pay to play,” a term that’s not exactly flung casually around the John A. Wilson Building these days. He acknowledged that waning public trust is a problem, that “it is imperative to protect the contracting process from undue political influence or even the appearance of such influence.”

For another, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who saw his own anti-pay-to-play proposals voted down 1-12 by colleagues, told Nathan he would be “greatly heartened” if the council passed his proposals. But he added that he’d be “stunned” if his colleagues did so: “If anything like this was passed ... it would be gutted first.”

Here’s what Nathan outlined in his testimony:

• Those who have or are bidding on city contracts would be barred from making campaign donations to any candidate who could be involved in the contract approval process. They would also be barred from giving to any entity in which such an official has a financial interest — a nonprofit organization, for instance. Such curbs would also apply to “those who seek large grants from the government.”

• Corporations that contribute to a candidate would be required to identify major shareholders as well as affiliated and subsidiary companies. Those shareholders would have those corporate donations counted against their personal contribution limit. That’s already the law, but there are loopholes and enforcement gaps galore.

• Transparency requirements would be toughened: Electronic campaign finance disclosures would be mandatory, campaigns would have to file daily activity reports during the final 30 days before an election, and independent committees would have to certify they have not coordinated with a candidate or party.

• Lobbyists would be prohibited from bundling donations, in the sense of “collecting contributions from multiple contributors, taking possession of such contributions, or delivering such contributions directly or indirectly” to a candidate.

• Candidates would be “held accountable for what their political committees do” — meaning they can’t plead ignorance when their campaigns break the law. Nathan was vague on what precisely that would entail, but candidates would have to certify that their campaigns have followed the law and have notified donors of their legal obligations.

What isn’t contemplated in the Gray/Nathan’s proposal is a flat ban on corporate donations to candidates, which is the aim of the Initiative 70 effort. Nathan pooh-poohed that approach as not “refined.”

“I think we need to focus on what the problem is and try to deal with the problem, and not just take a meat ax to it and just deal with it in a wholesale way,” he said.

In his testimony, Nathan explictly mentioned “the value of allowing others, including organizations, to exercise their constitutional rights to disseminate their views on important public issues and to support financially the candidates they favor.” He also questioned, given the current state of campaign finance jurisprudence, how long such a ban might remain constitutional: “If you read the logic of Citizens United, it doesn’t take a prophet to see where things are heading.”

So how fast might these proposals move toward becoming law? It’ll be September at the earliest — Nathan said his office won’t have actual legislation for lawmakers to consider until the second week of July, just as the council starts its summer recess. Bowser said she’s convene a group of residents, businesses, and others to weigh in on the proposed changes in the interim.

Nathan’s testimony in full:

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.


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