Staff Editorial: Council must move quickly on campaign finance reform

The John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW holds the offices for the mayor and D.C. Council. (photo courtesy of Josh Gibson)

As the District’s 2018 elections approach — likely bringing tough contests for the mayoralty and other top city offices — we may once again see allegations that officials are too beholden to their big campaign donors. Despite repeated efforts to reform D.C. campaign finance laws, there still remains ample room for “pay-to-play” dealings and the corrosive appearance thereof.

As D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine noted in a news release, there is “an overwhelming perception among District residents that pay-to-play politics means big money can exert an undue influence on government decision-makers — to the detriment of residents’ needs and concerns.”

Fortunately, there is still a bit of time to address this persistent issue before the campaign season heats up. The D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a hearing Monday to review four campaign finance bills, with an eye toward combining the best elements into a single piece of legislation.

In our view, awarding city contracts to large campaign donors erodes the public’s trust in local government. Even when a contract — or other government benefit such as a tax abatement — is awarded based on the merits, it’s understandably difficult to persuade skeptics. Moreover, local businesses have reported feeling pressure to contribute to campaigns to remain in the running, which clearly runs counter to the spirit of a donation.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine speaks at his 2015 inauguration. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2015)

Proposals from various council members and Attorney General Racine would prevent the awarding of contracts and other benefits to donors who provide more than a certain amount, for a certain period after the donation is made. We aren’t wedded to specific numbers, but would like to ensure that small donations — perhaps under $100 — remain permissible with proper disclosure. We also appreciate Mr. Racine’s proposals to further separate candidates from political action committees, or PACs.

One concern, as the judiciary committee sorts through myriad proposals and opinions, is that indecision could further stall the campaign finance process. With the appropriate degree of effort, however, the committee could develop a bill during the council’s summer recess and be ready to move forward with it in the fall. If necessary to keep to the timetable, we’d encourage a relatively simple measure to start, allowing room to increase its scope as time progresses. The priority should be to have the new rules in place before serious 2018 fundraising is underway — and that means acting quickly. We should not have any more public officials’ terms clouded by their high-dollar election campaigns.

Separately, we support a proposal from Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh that would ramp up disclosure requirements for lobbyists. This bill would help shed light on lobbyists’ efforts to influence a greater variety of public processes, including awarding of contracts. But with the election looming, we do feel that campaign finance is the priority.