When Ward 6 DC Council member Charles Allen took over as chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety nearly two years ago, he pledged to push through campaign finance reform, consolidating and advancing a host of legislative proposals presented by a half dozen council members and the current attorney general. Last week, Allen kept that promise — but no one should do the touchdown dance just yet.
Calls for campaign finance reform in DC swelled after a series of scandals between 2009 and 2012 involving elected officials, as three sitting council members pleaded guilty to federal felony charges — Harry Thomas Jr., Kwame Brown and Michael Brown. Thomas and Michael Brown served time in prison. There also were allegations that Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral election engaged in campaign finance fraud. While Gray was never charged, key members of that campaign committee were, and they subsequently pleaded.
It’s understandable that people witnessing what appeared to be wholesale government corruption wanted strong and swift policy changes. However, the Allen bill is not the answer to any of those concerns.
It is, instead, an overzealous exercise of government power and authority. It appears riddled with serious and conflicting problems.
Nevertheless, Allen and his committee colleagues believe their omnibus legislation will satisfy those residents and advocates who have been clamoring for change. “District residents want their voices to be heard over those of special interests,” he said in a prepared statement released following the committee’s vote on Thursday.
That comment is laughable, as the bill is a testament to the influence of special interests, including organizations and individuals with national agendas.
Allen continued, “This bill, along with the Fair Elections Amendment Act passed earlier this year, will empower voters and strengthen our local democracy.”
Among other things, the bill, as described by Allen in his statement, would “restrict political contributions by government contractors doing business with the District; [and] addresses improper coordination between campaigns, political action committees (PACs), and independent expenditure committees (IECs).” It would further prohibit bundling by lobbyists; require all campaign debts to be retired within six months, with the candidate otherwise becoming personally liable for those debts; and cap personal loans a candidate can give to their campaign.
Ward 6 DC Council member Charles Allen, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, shepherded an omnibus campaign finance bill through the panel last week. The full council is expected to take up the legislation later this year. (Photo courtesy of Charles Allen)
Allen declined to provide me a copy of the committee markup and report. He said amendments were made during the panel’s meeting and that there was a “robust discussion” which he wanted to incorporate into the final report. He did, however, answer questions I posed during a telephone conversation and in a subsequent email.
Based on those discussions, it’s clear to me that his description of his bill as strengthening local democracy is debatable at best. Truth be told, the Allen bill, as passed unanimously by the committee, would enshrine inequity in the campaign finance system while complicating enforcement and inviting legal challenges by those who feel their rights are being infringed. In other words, it would make matters worse — not better.
Consider the highly touted “play to pay” component of the bill that would ban campaign contributions by businesses, including nonprofits, that hold or are seeking DC contracts of $250,000 or more: That prohibition would apply outright to candidates for mayor or the attorney general, including the incumbents. Not so much to those running for the council.
“[Council] members have no ability to influence contracts that do not come before them, so there would not be a contribution prohibition for contracts with a value of less than $1,000,000 submitted by the executive, those that are not multi-year, or those that would not otherwise come before the council via legislation,” Allen told me in his email response to one of my questions.
That’s a stadium length of wiggle room for council candidates. Fortunately, even if the bill is approved by the full council and signed by the mayor, it won’t take effect immediately. According to Allen, “The bill is subject to appropriations. If it is funded in the upcoming FY20 budget, it would take effect on October 1, 2019, and given the work required with [the Office of Contracting and Procurement and the Office of Campaign Finance] to set it up, the pay-to-play provisions in the bill would take effect the day after the November 2020 General Election.”
Regardless of the implementation timeline, Allen’s bill would provide council candidates the opportunity to tap funds that other political candidates would be denied, creating a dual and discriminatory system based on which office is sought.
That doesn’t sound very democratic to me.
Moreover, the bill makes a distinction between contracts and grants — with no changes contemplated for donations from those receiving or seeking the latter. Each year, the District government passes out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants. The distribution of those funds is preceded by extensive lobbying, frequently by nonprofit corporations or their agents.
In the 2019 budget support act, for example, the council approved more than $10 million as grants to arts organizations that may not have been identified by name in the bill but were clearly known by the legislators approving the measure. In an attempt to avoid earmarks, the council set up a convoluted, disingenuous process that led the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to offer grants that only a select few could apply for. Representatives from those groups had lobbied for increased arts funding. Unlike principals receiving contracts, however, principals at those nonprofits receiving grants essentially would be exempted from the contributions ban.
That sounds discriminatory — not very democratic — to me.