The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The D.C. Council should take action against pay-to-play politics

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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GOVERNMENT CONTRACTING controversies in the District on matters ranging from the lottery to grass-cutting to homeless shelters have underscored an urgent need for reform. But efforts to bring the District in line with the good-government contracting practices of other jurisdictions have never succeeded. Let’s hope the D.C. Council doesn’t again fall short when it takes up proposed campaign finance legislation that would prevent campaign contributions from influencing who gets government contracts.

Council members are set to vote Tuesday on an omnibus bill, sponsored by Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and passed unanimously last month by the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, that would bring sweeping changes to the city’s campaign finance laws. A key measure would target pay-to-play politics with a ban on campaign contributions from companies, or their principal officers, that seek or hold one or more government contracts with an aggregate value of $250,000 or more. The law would apply to the mayor, attorney general, council members and candidates running for those offices. It also would apply to principal-campaign accounts, constituent-services accounts, exploratory committees, transition committees, inaugural committees and legal-defense committees, an encouraging sign the proposal is serious about not leaving any loopholes. It would go into effect Nov. 4, 2020.

There has been spirited debate about the proposal. Some opponents have argued that concerns about pay-to-play have been overblown, with little evidence of contracts being awarded in exchange for money. But, as the committee report noted, pay-to-play contracting generally doesn’t take the form of outright bribery but rather involves the contractor buying access for consideration of a government contract. That damages the integrity of the contracting process and undermines public confidence in government.

At least 17 states, the federal government and a number of cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have put in place safeguards to shield government contracts from the influence of campaign contributions. It is time the District follows that good lead. The council should resist any effort to delay or weaken this needed measure, give its prompt approval and provide the resources that will be critical to its enforcement.

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