D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie said he will introduce emergency legislation to bar contributions to political action committees during non-election years in an effort to close what some view as a major campaign finance loophole before the start of 2017.
“It’s important that we address the issue as soon as possible, before Jan. 1,” McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said. “There’s a lot of support for it from what we’ve seen from the public in general.”
McDuffie chairs the council’s judiciary committee, which is considering five related campaign finance reform bills, some of which include a closure of the loophole. Those bills are unlikely to pass before the legislative period closes at the end of the year, according to legislative aides and activists, but McDuffie’s emergency bill would bypass many of the steps ordinarily required.
He said Wednesday he is confident the council will approve it.
The most comprehensive of the pending legislation is Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s bill, introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on his behalf, that would prohibit businesses and individuals from receiving contracts worth $100,000 or more from the District within two years of donating to a candidate or elected official.
Racine said he plans to renew his push for campaign finance reform after the new council convenes in January.
He said he expects support from Mendelson and council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Robert White (D-At Large) and newly elected Trayon White (D-Ward 8).
Racine’s proposal to stop government officials from awarding contracts to donors is key, said Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.
“That’s a pretty strict rule,” he said. “And if it is effectively enforced, it should serve to advance what I think is the overall goal of all the bills put together, which is to not only limit the ability of high donors to essentially influence legislation or govern action on their behalf, but also to limit even the appearance of that happening.”
Since 2012, three D.C. Council members have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Federal prosecutors also probed illegal campaign financing of Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, in which six of Gray’s former campaign aides pleaded guilty but Gray was never charged.
Racine has also been accused of a conflict of interest. In February, John Falcicchio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, noted that the attorney general used donations from companies who did business with the city to pay off his campaign debt. Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general, has said he did not violate laws when collecting the money.
Mirroring Racine’s legislation is a bill proposed by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) that would create a public financing system designed to encourage more people to run for office. Under the plan, called the Citizens Fair Elections Act, candidates who seek small campaign contributions — defined as less than $100 — and meet other requirements would receive matching public funds at a 5-to-1 rate.
“It’s the one solution that doesn’t just turn off the spigot of big money coming into our election,” said Zach Weinstein of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “It also brings more people in and amplifies their voices. So it’s kind of a proactive solution; it doesn’t just say here’s a list of things you can’t do when you’re running for office in D.C.”
Weinstein is also the lead organizer with the D.C. Fair Elections coalition, a grass roots effort that comprises about 70 organizations that has gathered petition signatures — about 3,000 by Weinstein’s count — from D.C. residents who support the bill.
In May, PIRG released a study authored by Weinstein that found winning candidates for D.C. Council, mayor and attorney general during the 2012 and 2014 elections received less than 5 percent of their funds from D.C. residents who gave less than $100. Such residents were outnumbered sevenfold by contributions from residents donating more than $100.
The study also found that under the Citizens Fair Elections Act, small donors — those donating double-digit amounts — would have accounted for 64 percent of fundraising for competitive candidates.
Separate research compiled by Demos, a liberal public-policy organization, found that campaign contributions during the 2014 election disproportionately represented rich white donors: 59 percent of contributors to council campaigns earn more than $100,000 a year, compared with a quarter of D.C.’s overall population. And about two-thirds of donors are white, while the city’s white population is 37 percent.
But, as D.C. Appleseed’s pro bono partner Arent Fox LLP found in a study based on the mayoral and council primaries from 2006 to 2014, a public financing system would cost the District $15 million to $20 million per four-year election cycle. That represents a small fraction of the District’s overall $13 billion budget.
In other jurisdictions that have increased participation by small donors, candidates who accept matching public funds are also barred from accepting bigger donations, said Smith, D.C. Appleseed’s executive director.
Last November, Maine voted to reward candidates with more funding if they raise a certain number of small contributions, strengthening the state’s “Clean Elections Act.” And on a more local level, Seattle passed an initiative to provide voters with “democracy vouchers” that they can donate to local candidates.
The program — the first such initiative in the nation — also lowered contribution caps and, like Racine’s bill, barred companies from donating to city elections if they receive large contracts from the government.