The DC Council recently passed the Fair Elections Act, which will make public financing available for candidates running for office. This policy has been implemented in many jurisdictions throughout the nation, and there is evidence that it expands the pool of candidates, which is a good thing. I congratulate the advocates who worked hard to get it passed.
Now it’s time for DC to take the next step by reforming our campaign finance and disclosure laws. I am the only person in this race who has proposed a comprehensive campaign finance reform package that will bring true transparency and accountability to our elections. Even after the Fair Elections Act has been implemented, DC law will continue to lag well behind what other progressive cities throughout the nation have already put in place.
My proposal is simple: DC must require mandatory public disclosure of all individual donors who serve as owners, executives, principals, directors, partners, board members or trustees of companies that have lobbied the DC Council or received public benefits. Public benefits would be defined as contracts, tax subsidies, or goods and services of substantial value provided by the city.
These types of disclosure laws have withstood First Amendment challenges in court. Judges have ruled that, even in an era where money is unfortunately protected as speech, it is in the public interest for voters to know who is electing – and influencing – our leaders.
Some have proposed prohibiting companies that do business with the city from making campaign contributions. This sounds like good policy on its face, but doing so would further incentivize donations from individuals who are involved in the business. An example of this abuse would be a candidate who commits to not taking his or her $500 from the Trump Organization, but quietly takes money from Eric, Don Jr, Ivanka, Jared and Tiffany, for a total of $2,500, none of which would captured as a contribution from a business entity under current law. This is why the additional mandatory disclosure requirements I am proposing are absolutely necessary.
It’s simple: voters deserve easy access to information about any individual donor who is seeking to conduct meaningful business in their community, because these people wield as much influence on Councilmembers as their businesses, if not more so. Understanding who they are and why they might be donating is the least we should be doing if we truly care about reforming our campaign finance laws and returning influence to the people, where it belongs. We cannot by law prohibit donations from these individuals, but courts have held that we can require transparency by making disclosure of their donations and business relationships mandatory.
Absent some deterrent that would keep DC Councilmembers from taking tens of thousands of dollars from business owners and executives without paying a political price for doing so, our system encourages pay-for-play politics. Mandatory disclosure would not prohibit politicians from taking money from business interests, but it will give voters a fighting chance to understand who is trying to influence our elections.