Despite months of rhetoric and proposals, D.C. lawmakers failed to pass sweeping campaign finance reforms by the end of a legislative period that was historic for all the wrong reasons.
Two D.C. Council members were poised to offer piecemeal measures as the clock ticked down on the final meeting of the year, a marathon session that extended into the night. But even before the meeting began, their proposals obtained a lukewarm reception in light of the body’s desire to pass a comprehensive bill early next year.
But council member Tommy Wells, a Ward 6 Democrat considered a contender for mayor in 2014, accused his colleagues of dragging their feet on the issue for too long.
“I don’t believe the council recognizes there’s a crisis in ethics,” Mr. Wells said before the meeting. “But I think the voters do.”
He flirted with emergency measures Tuesday that would have curbed outsized influence from city contractors and corporations by parsing out key parts of a proposal Mayor Vincent C. Gray sent to the council earlier this fall.
He never got the chance to offer the measures, since they were predicated on amending a separate proposal by council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, that would cap money-order contributions at $25 — essentially treating them like cash donations.
Ms. Cheh said Mr. Wells additional measures would act as a “poison pill” and defeat the whole package on the dais, so she “reluctantly and regretfully” withdrew her emergency legislation.
In response, Mr. Wells immediately hopped on Twitter and announced that “DC campaign finance reform will have to be up to the voters. Not the Council.”
City lawmakers such as Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said at a breakfast meeting that increased disclosure is the key to rebuilding trust, while other council members felt they need to pass thorough legislation that addresses a host of issues surrounding campaign finance practices in District.
Specifically, observers of city hall have questioned whether money orders are being used as a conduit for straw donations or if corporate donors are using their subsidiaries as a way to circumvent limits on political contributions.
In crafting a comprehensive bill, city lawmakers said they must not encumber candidates and contributors with unrealistic rules or run afoul of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that said the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on independent political spending by corporations. Campaign finance is an evolving topic for jurisdictions across the country, with the justices’ mandate in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission adding a layer of complexity.
Various states, including three in New England, have called on Congress to consider a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens ruling, according to the Hartford Courant.
Campaign finance reforms in the District, if they come to pass, will likely borrow from Mr. Gray’s proposal since it gives lawmakers a head start after a scandal-laden year. Two sitting council members resigned and pleaded guilty to felonies in unrelated cases in January and June, investigators continue to peel back suspicious layers of the city’s lottery contract, and federal prosecutors are approaching the two-year mark in their investigation of Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign.
“This council period has been very difficult on all of us,” said council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, moments after member David A. Catania and fellow lawmaker Marion Barry traded barbs over their approach to legislation designed to assist ex-offenders in finding work.
Ms. Cheh’s short-lived proposal stemmed from the probe into the Gray campaign, which raised questions about the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance’s ability to track contributions made by money order, since the instrument functions much like cash and is not anchored to a bank account like a personal check.
Although there is a record of purchase tied to each money order, some at city hall fear they are being used to shroud straw donors to various campaigns.
Yet council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, showed resistance to the idea in comments Monday and Tuesday morning. He said the cap seemed too low and that money orders do, at least, leave some record of the purchase.
Ms. Cheh’s measure would comport with the law in other states. Massachusetts, for instance, decided in 1995 that political contributions made by money order could not exceed $50, the same cap it imposed on cash donations. A donation of more than $50 would have to be made by personal checks.
Mr. Gray supported her measure in his position letter to the council but noted “it is regrettable that the Council did not seize the opportunity to enact full campaign finance reforms during this Council Period.”