Washington, D.C. is a city that, despite recent growth and prosperity, today still sees staggering levels of inequality that must be addressed. The issues facing D.C. are not new, and we will not experience a moral revival until our elected officials concern themselves with the concerns of all citizens not just the wealthy. Our pursuit of racial and economic justice and, concern for the well-being of democracy, inform our support for the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018.
Earlier this year, the D.C. Council enacted the Fair Elections Act. By instituting a system of publicly financed elections, the law took a bold step in creating a political system that is more inclusive of people of color, women and younger people.
Now the Council has an opportunity to build upon previous reforms and curb pay-to-play politics in the district, improve oversight of the District’s campaign finance laws and ensure contribution limits are respected. All of these initiatives will help create a government that is more responsive to D.C. residents, rather than wealthy special interests. Corporations and the 1 percent have too much influence nationally and sadly, D.C.’s political system is no different.
Pay-to-play politics have tarnished the D.C.’s image for far too long. Prohibiting contractors from contributing to candidates will improve the public’s perception of the government and the services provided. Government contracts should be awarded on merit not based on relationships nourished by streams of campaign cash.
Pay-to-play politics allows for corruption, which unchecked will destroy the moral legitimacy of any government, but especially one like D.C’s where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is already so stark.
Beyond dampening the confidence Washingtonians have in their government, the current system has led to a lower quality of service and worsened inequality. Contractors without the means to “pay” are known to not bid on contracts where their competitor enjoys favoritism. What should be a competitive bidding process becomes a forgone conclusion. D.C. residents deserve the high quality and reliable services a performance-based process promotes.
These issues are not unique to D.C. and pay-to-play laws are in place in a number of states and municipalities as well as at the federal level. Blocking this avenue for corruption is only one part of the proposals designed to enhance the democratic nature of D.C.’s elections.
The Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act would create a new, stand-alone Campaign Finance Board to oversee the administration and enforcement of the District’s campaign finance laws. Focused on the administration of the new Fair Elections program, this board would be comprised of campaign finance experts and provide the guidance and expertise necessary to successfully implement the program and ensure its goals are met.
Finally, so-called “independent” spending has increased at every level of government, drowning out the voices of citizens without boundless wealth. It is necessary to ensure that this spending is actually independent of candidates in order to avoid seriously undermining contribution limits and discouraging small-dollar donors from participating in the process. Without these safeguards, the Fair Elections program will be unsuccessful in broadening political participation across socioeconomic lines. If candidates are able to rely on special interests through improper coordinated spending then most citizens will be pushed back to the sidelines, once again relegated to mere bystanders in their own communities.
We urge the Council to pass the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018, fund it adequately and ensure its implementation in a timely manner. Inequality will not be solved by a single law but this bill shows that the D.C. Council is committed to moving in the right direction in creating a government by the people and most importantly, for the people.
Lamar is pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Michael is a senior political strategist for the Working Families Party.