Viewpoint: D.C. needs real campaign finance reform now

Karl Racine was sworn in as the District's first elected attorney general in 2015. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2015)

By Karl A. Racine

The new report from Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh regarding a politically connected city contractor and the District’s Department of General Services has again raised concerns among many District residents about the influence of big donors over our government. As Council member Cheh recommended in her report, “The Council should consider amending campaign finance laws to regulate campaign contributions by contractors. … [Even] the mere impression of favoritism for particular contractors or vendors by government staff can chill competition for government contracts.”

On July 10, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety will hold a hearing on several campaign finance reform bills — including legislation that our office introduced specifically to address the perception that big developers and other contractors can buy influence in our city.

Last year, after hearing from concerned residents across the city, I proposed what is now B22-0008, the Campaign Finance Transparency and Accountability Amendment Act of 2017. The proposal addresses both the reality and perception of pay-to-play politics by precluding any donor, including a corporation, from engaging in major business with the District for two years after giving to a political candidate or a political action committee. This means donors would be barred from large contracts, major grants and significant tax breaks for two years.

This issue is clearly of great concern to District residents. A series of scandals over the last several years involving donors has repeatedly fed the perception that the influence of big money in the District’s politics is problematic. In a recent poll, one of the few areas in which respondents expressed significant dissatisfaction with the city’s direction was in “reducing the influence of wealthy political donors on government decisions.”

Some who support the status quo contend that if we prohibit donors from bidding on large contracts, we will see an increase in the use of PACs and other roundabout ways for well-heeled donors to support particular candidates.

Under current law, there are many kinds of unregulated political activity in which individuals, corporations and PACs can engage even while coordinating with a campaign. Our bill addresses this concern by creating a “bright line” distinction between candidates and PACs, ensuring that those who coordinate with a campaign are subject to all the regulations that help keep our elections clean and transparent. These reforms will make that kind of circumvention significantly more difficult.

To protect honest government and bolster our residents’ confidence in the faithfulness of their representatives, now is the time for the council to move on our bill. Last year, Chairman Phil Mendelson sought council approval of a legislative package that would accomplish similar goals; it was defeated on a narrow 7-6 vote. However, three of those “no” votes are no longer on the council. I encourage District residents to call their council members and tell them they support the Campaign Finance Transparency and Accountability Amendment Act of 2017.

Even so, passing our bill and firmly separating donations from major business with the District is only a first step to addressing wider campaign finance issues. Other reforms — such as the other bills to be considered during the July 10 hearing as well as Council member Cheh’s recent proposal to expand the definition of lobbying to include actions related to contracting — are sorely needed to safeguard our local democracy.

While some aspects of campaign finance are extremely complex, one thing is clear. The time is now for the D.C. Council to begin restoring our residents’ faith in their government by separating big donors from city business.

Karl A. Racine is the D.C. attorney general.