"THE MOMENT has come for comprehensive campaign finance reform." So wrote D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) in support of public financing of political campaigns. That was in 2013, and nothing happened. Ditto in 2014 and 2015 and 2016, when similar efforts were made to establish a system aimed at ridding the political process of corrupting big money. The legislation is now again up for consideration — and this time we hope council members look past their own self-interest and adopt this needed reform.
The Fair Elections Amendment Act of 2017 got unanimous approval from a council committee Wednesday and is set to to be taken up next week by the full council for the first of two votes. Under the bill, candidates for office in the District could receive limited public matching funds if they meet certain conditions. This includes raising a certain amount of money from small donors and forgoing corporate or political action committee contributions. The program would be voluntary and is modeled after public-financing systems that have been put in place in other jurisdictions, including New York City, Connecticut, Maine and Maryland's nearby Montgomery and Howard counties.
"At the core of the bill," said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), a bill co-sponsor and chair of the committee that gave its approval, is "amplifying the voices of our small-dollar donors." That results in more people engaged in the political process and a leveling of a playing field that now gives lopsided advantage to corporations and special interests. It also widens the pool of people able to run for office by freeing candidates from having to rely on big-money donors. Some officeholders may not see that as a particular benefit, because it only increases their competition and undercuts the advantage of their incumbency in raising funds. No doubt that is one reason previous efforts to implement public financing in the District have failed.
That a supermajority of the council signed on as co-sponsors this time is an encouraging indication that the public's interest will take precedence. The council should give its approval, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) should sign the legislation into law so it can take effect for the 2020 election cycle.