BIG MONEY plays an increasingly corrosive role at many levels of politics in the United States. One response that has shown some success is public financing of campaigns. We hope the D.C. Council decides to join the ranks of local and state governments that have pioneered this useful tool.
Now before the council is a bill that would offer limited public matching funds to candidates who meet certain qualifications, including forgoing corporate or political action committee contributions. The measure, the Fair Elections Act, is modeled on public-financing systems that have been successfully implemented in other cities and states, including New York City, Connecticut and Maine, and that recently were adopted in neighboring Montgomery and Howard counties. Legislation championed in Congress by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) would apply the idea to national politics.
The District’s proposed program would be voluntary and has a simple premise. Candidates who forgo big contributions and instead build a network of small donations from local residents would be eligible to receive matching funds (a 5-to-1 match once a candidate qualifies for the ballot) from a public election fund. A public hearing on the bill last week showcased benefits that include getting more people engaged in the political process by giving increased power to small donations, widening the pool of people able to run for office and freeing candidates from having to rely on deep-pocketed donors for campaign funds.
Proponents estimate the annual cost at $5 million. That would be a wise investment toward better government. A supermajority of the council has signed on as sponsors, but previous attempts at public financing have foundered, so proponents are right to guard against overconfidence. That Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has so far stayed silent about the measure shows a disappointing lack of leadership on an important issue.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chaired the committee considering the legislation, said he hopes to have action when the council returns from its summer recess. It is already too late for the legislation to take effect in next year’s elections, so we urge the council not to further delay making this needed reform a reality.