It is easy to cast Washington, D.C. as lethargic and unbending to reform efforts. Congress failed to pass any legislation in response to foreign interference in the 2016 election, and increasingly looks uninterested in passing any legislation at all. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has become so dysfunctional that watchdog groups, like Campaign Legal Center, have become more effective in enforcing campaign finance law than the Commission itself. If Members of Congress need some inspiration for passing effective, comprehensive reform, they need look no further than a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue where the District of Columbia City Council has turned 2018 into a banner year for campaign finance reform.
Earlier this year, the District’s City Council enacted the Fair Elections Act, part of a national trend towards citizen-funded elections. Now, the City Council has again taken steps to ensure that the voices of all citizens, not just the rich and well connected, are heard by unanimously passing the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018, a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill.
Highlights from this ambitious bill include: prohibiting contributions from certain government contractors, robust coordination restrictions, an expert board to oversee the administration and firm enforcement of the district’s campaign finance laws.
Pay-to-play politics strikes at the heart of citizens’ concerns about undue influence afforded to campaign donors. Integrity in the government contracting process is essential to the reputation of a representative democracy and to the delivery of high quality public services. The district joins more than 17 states, municipalities and the federal government in passing this common-sense reform.
Fair Elections and pay-to-play restrictions run on parallel tracks with the same goal: A more democratic system that is responsive to its citizens. Fair Elections encourage broader civic engagement while pay-to-play restrictions address the troubling nexus of money and influence in politics.
These reforms focus on how campaigns are funded because outside groups play an increasingly large role in elections across the country. In order to prevent coordination between campaigns and outside spenders, the bill establishes several safeguards to ensure that independent expenditures are truly independent of candidates.
Robust coordination restrictions, like the one approved by the City Council, are particularly important in the context of publicly financed campaigns. Public financing increases the importance of small-dollar contributions and can help decrease the reliance on the same big money interests through coordinated spending.
Last but not least, the district’s new law restructures the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), the agency responsible for administering and enforcing campaign finance laws. OCF will be taken out from under the Board of Elections and will be overseen by a newly created Campaign Finance Board—an independent, five-member board comprised of administrators with experience in campaign finance law. Such a requirement may sound obvious, but effective administration and enforcement will be essential to achieving the goals of the new laws.
Democracy can only work when people have faith in public officials and the systems we use to choose them. Through both incompetence and negligence, Congress and the FEC have failed to respond to the reality of modern campaign finance. The district and other localities are leading the charge as laboratories of democracy.
As the House of Representatives makes plans to start the new session with a democracy reform package, hopefully, Congress will find the same success as their neighbors and make 2019 a banner year for our nation’s democracy.