In first vote, Council passes campaign finance omnibus bill restricting pay-to-play contributions, limiting money in politics

Today, the DC Council voted 11-0 to pass Councilmember Charles Allen’s omnibus campaign finance bill proposing sweeping changes to the District’s campaign finance laws, focusing particularly on restricting political contributions by individuals who regularly compete for contracts with the District government, as well as strengthening the enforcement of those laws.

“This bill, along with the Fair Elections Act passed earlier this year, will be a robust effort to help DC residents trust that their voice and participation in civic life matters and ensure candidates of all backgrounds can run for office with a viable path forward based on their ideas and not on who they know,” said Councilmember Allen, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

The bill makes changes in several areas of law governing campaigns for political office and elected officials serving in office, bringing the District in line with laws already in place across the country. Key points summarized below:

Tackling Government Pay-to-Play

The bill would ban contributions from any business, including its principals, with one or multiple contracts totaling an aggregate value of $250,000 annually or more to the Mayor or Attorney General, candidates running for those offices, political committees associated with those if the contract is procured by either office or District agencies.

For councilmembers, contractors seeking or holding a contract that must be approved by the council or legislatively approved to take effect would be banned from making any contributions to any councilmember, candidate for councilmember, political committee associated with a councilmember, or any constituent-service program affiliated with a councilmember.

The amount of time the ban lasts on contributions varies based on the type of contract, but generally extends to a year from the date of solicitation or the completion of a contract. Finally, if the bidder is successful, the bill treats any violations of improper contributions as a breach of contract that can then be ended by the District government.

Reforming Agency Oversight of Campaign Finance Laws

Under the bill, the Office of Campaign Finance would be removed from under the Board of Elections and empowered with its own independent board as the Campaign Finance Board. The bill calls for this new independent board to include members with specific campaign finance expertise and will provide the resources and tools needed to more completely investigate and prosecute or dismiss violations in a timely manner. Finally, it expands the existing law requiring a bi-annual report detailing receipts and expenditures of all candidates for Mayor, Attorney General, Chairman and members of the Council, members of the State Board of Education, Shadow Senator, and Shadow Representative.  

Addressing Improper Coordination between Public Officials, PACs, and IECs (dark money)

The bill expands on the types of improper coordination between public officials and independent expenditures in campaigns. It would close a lobbying revolving door where former staff, immediate family members, or former elected officials working independently would face a rebuttable presumption to have coordinated messaging or otherwise coordinated with a campaign for whom an employed staff member had a pre-existing relationship.

Limiting Money in Politics

The bill makes several important restrictions to remove money in politics:

  • prohibits bundling by lobbyists,
  • requires all campaign debts be retired within six months and the candidate remains personally liable for outstanding debts after six months, and
  • lowers aggregate contributions to inaugural committees or legal defense funds from $10,000 to $2,000.

“This bill has to work in partnership with the Fair Elections Act of 2018, which created public financing for campaigns beginning in the 2020 election cycle,” said Councilmember Allen, who authored the Fair Elections Act of 2018. “Taken together, these laws would be a significant overhaul of how candidates run for office and give District residents a far more powerful voice in selecting their leaders and holding them accountable.”

The omnibus bill combines portions of several pending campaign finance-related bills from Chairman Phil Mendelson, Attorney General Karl Racine, and Councilmembers Cheh, Gray, Grosso, Nadeau, Silverman, Robert White, and Trayon White.

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