By: Alyssa Kaiser
The world of campaign finance exploded after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Citizens United v. FEC. This decision greatly impacted elections on the national stage and critics raised concerns about the ability of those with the financial means to buy elections. There are also fears about the impact of the decision on elections going forward. States struggle with similar issues in campaign finance, with concerns of “pay to play” politics controlling the District elections. The District of Columbia has important decisions to make going forward if it wants to restore confidence in its elections.
Violations of campaign finance laws in the District are evident; in the past 40 years, two of seven mayors have suffered major scandals. When considering the relative power that is at stake in the D.C. elections, it is important to note that D.C. politics take on a different nature than other municipalities. As the capital of the United States, the District government acts more like a state government, with the mayor essentially acting as the governor and the Council as the main legislative body for more than 600,000 people. These officials are tasked with protecting the interests of the municipality from the national interests at play in Congress. The heightened responsibility adds additional importance to elected officials and an increased desire to become part of the local government, leading to competitive elections. In order to be competitive, a candidate must raise a significant amount of money. However, where this money comes from is a concern and may have an important impact on a candidate’s behavior.
Before the 2016 summer recess, bills were brought before the D.C. Council in order to reform campaign finance. The bills focused on cracking down on the “pay to play” culture of the District, where businesses and developers make large campaign donations to hopeful candidates in return for tax breaks and contracts after they are elected. The large donations create problems for elected officials; the public wonders if the contracts are truly needed with the businesses or developers and other contractors in the industry wonder if they can compete if they did not give a large campaign donation, especially when their competition did. This is not the level of confidence that we want to have in our government officials. The perception of corruption, and perhaps the reality of the situation, exists.
Some defend the current campaign finance laws, essentially stating that the laws are effective because those that have violated them have lost their committees or even gone to jail. There is also concern that if more restrictions are imposed on candidates, then they will have to spend more time raising money rather than speaking to constituents or performing their role on the Council if they are an incumbent.
Others propose even more drastic measures that will cut the corruption out of the election process. They suggest simply taking away the power of the Council to decide contracts over one million dollars and leave this decision solely to the mayor. This takes away the ability for the Council to become corrupt or bias due to campaign contributions. Additionally, businesses should be limited to one campaign contribution. Another area of concern centers on the effectiveness of the District’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). If the OCF cannot manage the laws as they are now, it will do no good to add additional laws later. Perhaps another route is to impose higher fines for violations along with more disclosure requirements.
If the overhaul to the District’s campaign finance occurs, there will be a shortage of money in campaigns. A solution to this is creating a system of public financing for campaigns. Under the proposed bill, a candidate would receive a matched contribution of 2 to 1 before their name is on the ballot and 5 to 1 after securing a spot on the ballot. This method would allow for candidates from all backgrounds to run for office. Less time will be spent talking to large donors, and more time spent talking to many small donors, with the same fundraising effect. It seems as though the District is ready to take major steps in the area of reforming campaign finance, and given the complex nature of the District, it will be interesting to see how the Council decides to proceed. Reform in D.C. campaign finance is certainly an area to watch, as it will be interesting to see if those in office decide to change the very the campaign finance method by which they were elected.