THE D.C. COUNCIL’S refusal to reform how local political campaigns are financed was a telling omission in the overhaul of government ethics two years ago. So it’s encouraging that there seems to be some support for plugging egregious loopholes in the current law. The proposal doesn’t go as far as it should in making all the needed fixes to campaign finance, but it would be an encouraging start — even if it comes too late to affect elections next year.
Campaign finance reform legislation sponsored by council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) cleared a critical committee last week and will come before the full council on Nov. 5. The bill would cap money-order donations, mandate training for campaign treasurers, make candidates liable for violations and give jurisdiction to the D.C. attorney general to prosecute violations. Most significant is that it would strengthen contribution limits and disclosure requirements so that limited liability companies could no longer take advantage of a notorious loophole that has allowed them to aggregate donations in excess of limits.
The bill would restrict all businesses, including corporate subsidiaries and limited liability corporations with shared owners, to a single contribution. It’s a needed change that we hope the council endorses without watering it down — as some members have already hinted they want to do — by increasing the District’s contribution limits.
The legislation, though, falls disappointingly short in addressing what’s been a major issue in the city: a pay-to-play culture in which campaign contributions are made in hopes of winning government contracts. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had advanced a comprehensive plan that would have barred contributions from government contractors. It is sound policy that was developed by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan in consultation with the nonprofit Public Citizen and has been successfully used by the federal government, 15 states and dozens of local communities. Mr. McDuffie differed, favoring an approach — to be separately considered by the council — that would remove the council’s direct authority over the approval of contracts.
We agree that the council should have no say over individual contracts that go through a professional procurement process, but that change alone would not eliminate the possibility of abuses. Only by restricting campaign contributions from government contractors would the council send a message that its days of pay-to-play are really over.