Barras: Campaign finance hysteria

Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

I considered delivering massive doses of Valium to the D.C. Council chamber earlier this week. The level of hysteria was alarming: Many folks testifying before the Committee on Government Operations wanted to ban every campaign contribution fathomable while labeling everyone -- contractors, lobbyists, corporations, corporate executives and their relatives -- corrupt or potentially corrupt.

People are traumatized; that's understandable. Federal investigations have resulted in guilty pleas by two council members, political handlers and nonprofit executives. And, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. isn't finished.

Things are a mess. But not everyone is dirty.

Still, in the zeal to destroy the environment that may have lead to corrupt and unethical behaviors exposed by the feds, there has been a tsunami of questionable legislative proposals: an outright ban on all corporate contributions; a limit on donations made by subsidiaries or affiliates of the same corporation; a cap of $25 on contributions made via money order; prohibition on legislators being employed or retained by a business that has a District government contract or intends to bid on a contract; and restrictions on direct contributions from contractors.

"It's an overreaction so typical in political life," said ACLU Washington D.C. Legal Director Art Spitzer, adding "there is a problem," but many solutions as proposed won't solve them.

The term "contractor" is so broad, said Spitzer, it could include "individuals hired by agencies to be sign-language interpreters for public events ... or artists hired to create murals in government buildings." And while the council and Attorney General Irvin Nathan may want to attack so-called "pay to play" practices, "not all contributions by contractors are 'paying to play,' and many contractors are individuals who have First Amendment rights to make political contributions.

"We believe the proposed absolute ban on all contributions by all contractors is unconstitutional, as it is not narrowly tailored to serve the government's interest in avoiding 'pay to play' corruption," Spitzer added.

The ban on corporate contributions isn't much better. Years ago, after citizens, through ballot initiative, significantly limited campaign donations, there was an explosion of independent contributions and expenditures. Seeking to eliminate that ban, the ACLU took the city to court; the law was struck down.

Hopefully, the District isn't headed for another legal defeat.

Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, chair of the government ops committee, has promised "meaningful campaign finance reform" that protects everyone's rights. She said she intends to be "thoughtful and deliberative" and will "bring a group together this summer" to help craft comprehensive legislation -- comparable in scope and depth to the ethics bill she developed last year.

Truthfully, there is little wrong with the city's panoply of existing campaign finance laws that greater disclosure and muscular enforcement can't cure.

But that won't solve the real problem for some current politicians looking for higher office and political wannabes seeking any seat. Their ambitions are mostly impeded by money -- big contributions to better-known candidates and incumbents. This entire campaign finance movement is their Hail Mary.

Things rarely are as innocent as they seem.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at

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