Saying that the District’s political leadership has been tainted by ethics violations and felony scandals during the past three years is an understatement.
But the latest proposal to selectively limit participation in local elections and initiate campaign public financing is wrongheaded and, despite sponsor claims, does nothing to prevent personal gain through graft and corruption.
Proposed legislation introduced by D.C. Council members David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie merely attempts to trade on public cynicism in order to finance with tax dollars a promised plethora of political campaigns.
They call their bill “Fair Elections D.C.” – more aptly referred to as the “Guaranteed Windfall for Wannabes Who Want to Throw Their Hat in the Ring.” Fortunately, this misguided campaign finance idea is as much a long shot as the likely multitude of marginal and vanity undertakings it would place on the public dole.
The proposed payouts are astounding. Any candidate running in either a political party primary or general election agreeing to forego contributions from the business community – but not labor unions or special interest groups – and limiting donors to $100 would receive a jaw-dropping 4-to-1 match in tax dollars. Qualifying with only $5,000 in contributions, a mere $50,000 suddenly becomes a quarter-of-a-million dollars and on up to much heftier largesse – all at public expense.
With a startling lack of self-awareness as to the irony, they propose that the millions of dollars in required spending be paid for by new taxes on – yep, you guessed it – local businesses.
Grosso and McDuffie imply that successful candidates are whores willing to “sell their souls” in exchange for the small amounts of money comprising the modest maximum campaign contribution. D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, among others, has rightly taken offense at the notion that her vote can be “bought” at a prostitute’s price.
Last fall an effort to place a similar initiative on the ballot failed and, by proponent admission, proved to be more controversial among voters than anticipated. The measure would have prohibited business entities from making direct political contributions to candidates or committees, while allowing labor union monies to freely flow.
What should temper this trendy political-hipster meme is the fact that many businesses would love not being allowed to make campaign contributions. But that’s not reason to do so.
Credible candidates enjoying broad-based support don’t need to feed at the public trough to get their message out, nor should taxpayers underwrite them. If the city has an electoral problem, it’s that too many under-qualified candidates with little relevant experience or actual support already litter the ballot.
The real scandal is the dominance of tax-and-spend hyper-partisans with no real-world knowledge on how to smartly operate the “big business” of a city government with a nearly $12 billion budget. Local enterprise suffers an overabundance of naive lab-rat engineering schemed up by wide-eyed “government-as-goddess” types.
It’s the reason D.C. continues to rank at the very bottom of the barrel when measuring friendliness toward both small and significant sized business. It’s why the entrepreneurs fueling local revenue development, employment creation and economic growth often confront yet another harebrained proposal to hamstring progress with regulations and restrictions or another politician taking public credit for private sector activity. The latter is derisively known as the “see-all-the-pretty-construction-cranes” brag. Never mind that those cranes tower over the city in spite of local policies.
Mocking this misguided proposal is not to preserve a hypothetical advantage enjoyed by candidates able to raise a portion of funds from the business community. In fact, the inverse is the objective of public financing proponents.
Deciding that local businesses have no legitimate stake in public discourse or limiting freedom to participate in the political process like every other entity, group or stakeholder tilts the playing field to unfairly and arbitrarily favor particular political perspectives and philosophical proclivities.
It doesn’t make the system better.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.