Craig Holman is a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
Drain the swamp, and the alligators get angry.
We are starting to see wealthy businesses that are dreaming of winning lucrative government contracts from the District bare their teeth in opposition to a sweeping campaign finance reform bill sponsored by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). The measure was quietly and unanimously approved by the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee a few weeks ago. But now that it is front and center on the council’s agenda, the fight begins.
The clean-government legislation, tediously titled the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act, is anything but boring. It would prohibit lobbyists bundling numerous contributions from others into one large campaign contribution on behalf of the lobbyist to an officeholder. It would tighten the coordination rules between candidates and so-called independent expenditure committees so a candidate’s family member or former staffer could not suddenly set up a second committee to raise and spend unlimited funds for that candidate. And it would strengthen the muscle of the campaign finance enforcement agency by buffering its independence from the mayor and council.
Most of all — and this is the real kicker — it would prohibit those seeking large government contracts from making campaign contributions to those responsible for awarding the contracts. This is known as “pay-to-play” legislation, in that businesses would no longer be expected to pay to take part in the competition for lucrative government contracts — in fact, they would be prohibited from doing so.
Pay-to-play legislation is not a radical idea; it is tried-and-true policy already on the books in 15 states, the federal government and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as dozens of localities around the nation — including Philadelphia and New York. There is a lengthy case record of actual and perceived corruption when government contractors are allowed to hand over a wad of money as a campaign donation to those who award the contracts. As a result, the courts — even courts hostile to campaign finance restrictions — routinely uphold the constitutionality of pay-to-play laws.
Allen’s pay-to-play bill borrows from many of the best practices of other pay-to-play laws. Businesses that seek government contracts of $250,000 or more would be barred from making campaign contributions to those responsible for awarding the contracts from the date of solicitation of the contract through one year after termination of the contract. The contractor subject to the ban is defined not just as the business itself but also its principals — including owners and senior executives. This would capture the scandalous pay-to-play abuses of convicted contractor Jeffrey Thompson, who doled out money from his own pocket and emerged as the District’s largest single government contractor.
Whoever is responsible for awarding the government contract — the mayor, attorney general and/or council, including candidates for these offices — would be prohibited from receiving contributions from contractors. For the council, the ban on campaign contributions even applies to those seeking tax exemptions or real estate development projects valued at $250,000 or more that originate with the council, as well as any contract of $1 million or more originating in the mayor’s office that requires council approval.
The definition of “principals” subject to the restrictions is narrowed for educational institutions. Academic deans, for example, would be exempt since they are not directly involved in the contracting process. Educational and other research grants would also be also exempt from pay-to-play restrictions. This is responsible reform legislation, and it is desperately needed.
Despite the sensational scandal that roiled D.C. politics in 2014, resulting in convictions of officials and lobbyists, government contractors continue to be among the largest single source of campaign contributions for the mayor and council members, sometimes amounting to more than a quarter of those officials’ campaign budgets.
The District has a problem. Powerful moneyed interests have long used campaign donations as a tool to dominate government contracting, damaging the public’s confidence in government and often wasting taxpayer dollars and causing legitimate businesses to opt out of government service.
It is not that we don’t know how to address the pay-to-play problem. The policy solution is right at our fingertips: ban campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts to those responsible for awarding the contracts. The issue is whether we have the political will.