It’s no secret that D.C. government has struggled with corruption. Since 2012, three council members have pleaded guilty to corruption-related offenses. Now, a bill gaining steam in the council threatens to make a bad situation worse.
Taking cues from New York City and Los Angeles, also beset by government corruption, a D.C. Council committee has unanimously approved a bill that would inject taxpayer money directly into partisan politics. At a rate of 5:1, taxpayers will be on the hook to “match” (government-speak for quintuple) contributions to politicians, no matter how loathsome they find the candidate. If a donor gives $10, the District will kick in $50.
The evidence from similar programs in New York and L.A. is uninspiring. Neither city has succeeded in making its government or campaigns “clean,” as advocates claim is possible. If anything, the programs have opened up new avenues for corrupt politicians to game the rules at taxpayers’ expense.
In New York, candidates receiving tax dollars to run their campaigns have committed crimes so blatant that some went to prison. One city councilman from Queens stole over $30,000 in taxpayer money and was later sentenced to 2-6 years in prison. Other candidates have been arrested and charged with forging donations to receive matching funds. The controversies extend all the way to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been mired in multiple financial scandals despite publicly championing efforts to fight ‘money in politics.’
On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Times uncovered evidence last year suggesting that local politicians were trading favors for money even as they received generous funding from the city. Over half a million dollars in political contributions were linked to a real estate developer who later benefited from a zoning decision that politicians supported over the objections of the Department of City Planning. Five of those politicians are participants in the city’s tax-financing program, and have received over $2 million from it. Forged donations are an issue in L.A., too.
These stories are anecdotal, but taxpayer financed campaigns' troubles are not. The organization I work for, the Institute for Free Speech, has conducted numerous studies of the effects of these programs in cities and states across the nation. Repeatedly, we find that they are dogged by corruption and fail to achieve their goals. Adding to our skepticism is the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that tax-financing programs in Arizona and Maine failed to encourage new candidates or aid challengers running against incumbents.
The program D.C. is considering would be worse than those in Arizona and Maine, which provide a lump sum to candidates who qualify. Instead, D.C. taxpayers will be on the hook for an unpredictable amount because their program would “match” contributions whenever they are given. On top of that, there’s a lump sum to “kick-start” campaigns. In a game of pick your poison, the D.C. Council appears to be choosing both.
Once tax financing programs are in place, they are very hard to remove. When benefits fail to materialize, supporters simply demand more money. In fact, both New York City and Los Angeles initially matched contributions at a rate of 1:1. Today, that ratio has escalated to 6:1 in New York and 4:1 in L.A. general elections.
Calling this bill the Fair Elections Act is a misnomer. It’s not fair to charge taxpayers an unpredictable, open-ended amount to fund a program that doesn’t work. It’s not fair to force candidates to spend time chasing matching funds instead of winning votes. Most of all, it’s not fair to force people to fund politicians they oppose.
Here, too, New York City offers a stark example of what can go wrong. Earlier this year, Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a candidate for city council, promised to use $100,000 in taxpayer funds to promote his openly anti-Semitic message of “protecting tenants from greedy Jewish landlords.” While almost everyone found Lopez-Pierre’s views abhorrent, the city was prohibited by longstanding court precedent from denying him matching funds on the basis of his speech. As a result, he succeeded in receiving over $99,000 from city taxpayers.
The rhetoric around the Fair Elections Act makes it sound like a solution. In practice, it will likely just add to the problem. No one thinks of New York or Los Angeles when they imagine places where money's political power is curbed. No one thinks of candidates milking the system for taxpayer dollars when they imagine how clean campaigns should be run.
There’s no question that D.C. corruption calls for a cure. But we should remember: First, do no harm.
Luke Wachob is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Free Speech in Alexandria, Virginia. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to defending First Amendment political speech rights.
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