Today, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is proposing a set of campaign finance and ethics reforms specifically targeting pay-to-play corruption, the all-too-common practice of a business entity making campaign contributions to candidates and public officials with the hope of gaining a lucrative government contract. The proposal to prohibit campaign contributions from government contractors is desperately needed in the District, and D.C. City Council should adopt the ethics reforms as soon as it returns following Labor Day.
Washington, D.C., is embroiled in a series of government contracting scandals that have caused immense harm to the image and credibility of the District government. It is important that District officials make reasonable efforts to assure the public and the business community that campaign contributions are not the gateway to District contracts.
If adopted, the mayor’s pay-to-play reforms would be among the strongest in the nation. Government contractors would be prohibited from making campaign contributions to, or expenditures on behalf of, any District candidate or official who is or could be involved in awarding the contract. Similarly, they cannot give to or spend on behalf of any political committee associated with an individual or nonprofit group controlled by the candidate or official. “Government contractor” is broadly defined to include all senior executives of the company seeking a contract. Even the spouses and dependent children of the executives would be limited to contributions of no more than $300 per election.
By taking the simple step of divorcing campaign contributions from government contracts, this critical pay-to-play reform proposal will help rebuild public confidence in the integrity of the District’s government contracting process. The measures will also provide useful guidance for public officials on how to avoid the political minefield of the appearance of corruption, whether justified or not, that accompanies pay-to-play practices. By breaking the nexus between campaign contributions and government contracts, all can breathe a collective sigh of relief and get back to more important District business.
Craig Holman, PhD is Public Citizen’s Congress Watch government reform lobbyist. Follow him on Twitter @CBHolman