The D.C. Council has the chance to end dalliances with corruption — and restore confidence in the city’s political process — by adopting the omnibus campaign-finance-reform bill unanimously passed last month by the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. This is no slapdash piece of legislation put together to satisfy good-government cravings in the city.
Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and other committee members have painstakingly crafted a measure that will, if enacted, right-size the outsize influence of big-money interests in D.C. politics, as well as strengthen the voices of District voters who should be calling the shots in city elections.
The challenge is to get the bill before the full council for a vote. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). In the interest of clean government, he must carry that weight to the dais.
Residents are sick and tired of hearing stories about the tangled web of money and power in city politics. They have seen the intersection of influential, wealthy developers and corporations with elected leaders, and how those relationships extend beyond Election Day and into the workday, when decisions on city business are made — sometimes at taxpayer expense.
They have felt outmatched by government contractors flush with the means to get in front of the line and have doors opened and phone calls taken and returned.
Many District voters recently watched with revulsion as business donors, in response to the capricious impulse of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), obediently kicked more than $100,000 into the campaign coffers of at-large candidate Dionne Reeder because Bowser wanted to unseat a political rival, Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). The business dough, however, arrived too little and too late. But the donors’ purpose was plain — do the bidding of the pols willing to do business. If you want to play, you’ve got to pay.
Voters have had enough.
The Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018 is not a panacea. It won’t excise larceny from the hearts of ill-intentioned donors. Neither will it expel the malignant influence of lust for power. But it does lay down some rules of the road, along with guidelines for how campaigns and campaign contributors must act toward one another. And the bill is equipped with penalties for crossing dividing lines. That’s all good.
For starters, the bill reshapes the Office of Campaign Finance, the agency charged with overseeing campaign-finance laws. The agency would be moved from under the Board of Elections and made into an independent regulator governed by a five-member Campaign Finance Board with appointees grounded in campaign-finance law and policy. The agency would be beefed up with the tools and staff needed to rigorously enforce the new laws.
The new legislative proposal steps up to the public’s concern that a “pay to play” culture has taken over the current system. It seeks to undo the influence that wealthy individuals and corporate contributors may have over elected officials. The measure cracks down on big money, banning contributions to the mayor, attorney general — and candidates for those offices and their committees — from any business holding one or more contracts with an aggregate value of $250,000 or more, if the contract is procured by either the attorney general’s office or another part of the executive branch. Council members get the same treatment: no contributions from contractors seeking or holding a contract of $250,000 or more that is approved by the council. Equally important, the ban would also apply to council members’ constituent-services funds — a slush fund for politicians to tend to their parochial political affairs. The purpose of those funds will be limited as well.
Lobbyists also get reined in, or at least the largesse of their employers will be limited in use. No longer will lobbyists be able to bundle unlimited amounts of contributions from people and drop those funds on a candidate as a way of showing political muscle or garnering influence, efforts that jump lobbyists and special interests ahead of the ordinary D.C. resident. The legislation stops short of barring lobbyists from making any contributions, though in some good-government quarters, that is a consummation devoutly to be wished for.
The bill does get at the business of donors pouring oodles of dollars into inaugural committees and legal defense funds to gain favor, by lowering contribution limits from $10,000 to $2,000. The committee’s legislation also adds new disclosure requirements that will illuminate and, hopefully, eliminate improper coordination between elected officials, political committees and independent expenditure committees.
Perfect? No. But this legislation will help level the playing field for voters who don’t have the kind of big bucks that alter the behavior of some public officials.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.