End­ing pay to play in D.C.

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY CRAIG HOL­MAN The writer is a gov­ern­ment af­fairs lob­by­ist for Pub­lic Cit­i­zen.

Drain the swamp, and the al­li­ga­tors get an­gry. We are start­ing to see wealthy busi­nesses that are dream­ing of win­ning lu­cra­tive gov­ern­ment con­tracts from the Dis­trict bare their teeth in op­po­si­tion to a sweep­ing cam­paign fi­nance re­form bill spon­sored by D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). The mea­sure was qui­etly and unan­i­mously ap­proved by the Ju­di­ciary and Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee a few weeks ago. But now that it is front and cen­ter on the coun­cil’s agenda, the fight be­gins.

The clean-gov­ern­ment leg­is­la­tion, te­diously ti­tled the Cam­paign Fi­nance Re­form Amend­ment Act, is any­thing but bor­ing. It would pro­hibit lob­by­ists bundling nu­mer­ous con­tri­bu­tions from oth­ers into one large cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion on be­half of the lob­by­ist to an of­fice­holder. It would tighten the co­or­di­na­tion rules be­tween can­di­dates and so­called in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tees so a can­di­date’s fam­ily mem­ber or for­mer staffer could not sud­denly set up a sec­ond com­mit­tee to raise and spend un­lim­ited funds for that can­di­date. And it would strengthen the mus­cle of the cam­paign fi­nance en­force­ment agency by buffer­ing its in­de­pen­dence from the mayor and coun­cil.

Most of all — and this is the real kicker — it would pro­hibit those seek­ing large gov­ern­ment con­tracts from mak­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to those re­spon­si­ble for award­ing the con­tracts. This is known as “pay-to-play” leg­is­la­tion, in that busi­nesses would no longer be ex­pected to pay to take part in the com­pe­ti­tion for lu­cra­tive gov­ern­ment con­tracts — in fact, they would be pro­hib­ited from do­ing so.

Pay-to-play leg­is­la­tion is not a rad­i­cal idea; it is tried-and-true pol­icy al­ready on the books in 15 states, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, as well as dozens of lo­cal­i­ties around the na­tion — in­clud­ing Philadel­phia and New York. There is a lengthy case record of ac­tual and per­ceived cor­rup­tion when gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors are al­lowed to hand over a wad of money as a cam­paign do­na­tion to those who award the con­tracts. As a re­sult, the courts — even courts hos­tile to cam­paign fi­nance re­stric­tions — rou­tinely up­hold the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of pay-to-play laws.

Allen’s pay-to-play bill bor­rows from many of the best prac­tices of other pay-to-play laws. Busi­nesses that seek gov­ern­ment con­tracts of $250,000 or more would be barred from mak­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to those re­spon­si­ble for award­ing the con­tracts from the date of so­lic­i­ta­tion of the con­tract through one year af­ter ter­mi­na­tion of the con­tract. The con­trac­tor sub­ject to the ban is de­fined not just as the busi­ness it­self but also its prin­ci­pals — in­clud­ing own­ers and se­nior ex­ec­u­tives. This would cap­ture the scan­dalous pay-to-play abuses of con­victed con­trac­tor Jef­frey Thomp­son, who doled out money from his own pocket and emerged as the Dis­trict’s largest sin­gle gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor.

Who­ever is re­spon­si­ble for award­ing the gov­ern­ment con­tract — the mayor, at­tor­ney gen­eral and/or coun­cil, in­clud­ing can­di­dates for th­ese of­fices — would be pro­hib­ited from re­ceiv­ing con­tri­bu­tions from con­trac­tors. For the coun­cil, the ban on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions even ap­plies to those seek­ing tax ex­emp­tions or real es­tate de­vel­op­ment projects val­ued at $250,000 or more that orig­i­nate with the coun­cil, as well as any con­tract of $1 mil­lion or more orig­i­nat­ing in the mayor’s of­fice that re­quires coun­cil ap­proval.

The def­i­ni­tion of “prin­ci­pals” sub­ject to the re­stric­tions is nar­rowed for ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. Aca­demic deans, for ex­am­ple, would be ex­empt since they are not di­rectly in­volved in the con­tract­ing process. Ed­u­ca­tional and other re­search grants would also be also ex­empt from pay-toplay re­stric­tions. This is re­spon­si­ble re­form leg­is­la­tion, and it is des­per­ately needed.

De­spite the sen­sa­tional scan­dal that roiled D.C. pol­i­tics in 2014, re­sult­ing in con­vic­tions of of­fi­cials and lob­by­ists, gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors con­tinue to be among the largest sin­gle source of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions for the mayor and coun­cil mem­bers, some­times amount­ing to more than a quar­ter of those of­fi­cials’ cam­paign bud­gets.

The Dis­trict has a prob­lem. Pow­er­ful mon­eyed in­ter­ests have long used cam­paign do­na­tions as a tool to dom­i­nate gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing, dam­ag­ing the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in gov­ern­ment and of­ten wast­ing tax­payer dol­lars and caus­ing le­git­i­mate busi­nesses to opt out of gov­ern­ment ser­vice.

It is not that we don’t know how to ad­dress the pay-to-play prob­lem. The pol­icy so­lu­tion is right at our fin­ger­tips: ban cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from those seek­ing gov­ern­ment con­tracts to those re­spon­si­ble for award­ing the con­tracts. The is­sue is whether we have the po­lit­i­cal will.

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