Corporations that currently hold or seek to hold government contracts worth at least $250,000 will no longer be permitted to make political campaign donations under new Washington, D.C. Council legislation passed Tuesday.
The bill, titled the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2017, also creates a board that will oversee the Office of Campaign Finance, requires campaign committees to make their top five donors public and prohibits bundled campaign contributions, a practice which bypasses caps on individual contribution sizes by dividing contributions between many different donors.
Authored by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the bill is an extension of the Fair Elections Act of 2017, which established a program for publicly funded campaigns and was passed by the D.C. Council in February. The Dec. 4 bill establishes regulations to address the issue of businesses donating money to public officials in return for expected favors, according to Allen’s Nov. 20 news release.
Aquene Freechild, director of Public Citizen’s “Democracy Is for People” campaign, an advocacy project seeking to reduce the influence of large corporations on government, views the bill as a symbol for promising campaign finance reform in D.C., which she said is behind other cities and states in terms of regulating campaign finance.
“It’s fantastic and much needed in every form,” Freechild said in an interview with The Hoya. “If you have business with somebody who is a public official who’s supposed to serve the public and you can give them thousands of dollars, there becomes an incentive for you to do that and gain access to that person’s fundraisers and other types of events.”
In the first round of voting Nov. 20, the campaign finance reform bill passed in the D.C. Council, with 11 of 13 council members voting in its favor.
Councilmember Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) was one of two council members who disagreed with the bill and abstained from voting. Todd’s communications director, Joshua Fleitman, said Todd felt the new bill would disproportionately affect certain voters.
“The reason he abstained from the first vote was because he felt that it selectively disenfranchised certain parts of the population,” Fleitman said in an interview with The Hoya.
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) also abstained from voting, though for a different reason. McDuffie argued the bill was unnecessary because voters are able to see through the actions of lobbyists to influence local politics, according to AP News.
Councilmembers who voted in favor of the bill held similar concerns. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) voted in favor of the bill despite reservations regarding its effectiveness. He believes that it is impossible to remove the presence of public influence in the government, according to The Washington Post.
In the second round of voting Dec. 4, the bill passed unanimously after Allen introduced amendments to address some of the lawmakers concerns. One of Allen’s amendments allowed contractors to contribute to their own campaigns if they chose to run.
The legislation is still pending approval by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), who holds the power to veto the bill. Bowser has yet to indicate her position on the bill.
Allen’s introduction of the bill followed a series of recent political corruption cases in the District.
In 2014, former District Medicaid contractor Jeffrey Thompson pled guilty to felony charges for illegal contributions to political campaigns, including that of former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who served from 2011 to 2015. In 2013, former D.C. Councilmember Michael Brown admitted to accepting $55,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents.
Bowser herself has fallen under scrutiny after her allied political action committee, FreshPAC, capitalized on a campaign finance law loophole to receive donations of unrestricted sizes from donors after they were nominated by Bowser to city positions and contracts, according to The Washington Post. In response, the D.C. Council signed legislation to restrict political action committee spending in Oct. 2015.
More recently, Public Citizen, a political advocacy organization, filed a complaint Oct. 23 alleging Bowser violated minimum spending restrictions in her endorsement for at-large Council candidate Dionne Reeder. The Office of Campaign Finance has since dismissed the accusations.
While the Council has previously taken measures to curb private influence, including the creation of an independent ethics board and eliminating loopholes in campaign finance laws, the new bill is the first initiative with the potential to catalyze the District’s campaign finance reform, according to Freechild.
“The past campaign reforms have obviously helped, but this would bring D.C. up to speed with other jurisdictions that are serious about combating corruption and empowering everyday voters,” Freechild said. “It’s not just about combating corruptions. It’s all about putting voters at the center of the process. It’s their government, and they should be put at the heart of it.”