Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

The DC Council has been considering a bill that would publicly finance political campaigns that prioritize small contributions. On Tuesday, that bill moved one step closer to reality when the Council unanimously voted in favor of adopting it. 

As we wrote earlier this year, a supermajority of Councilmembers were cosponsors on the bill, which is intended to amplify the influence of everyday voters and encourage small campaign contributions. The Council will have to vote for the bill again at a second reading before it becomes law. 

If ultimately passed, the bill would match small political contributions with public funds at a ratio of 2:1 before a candidate is on the election ballot, and at a ratio of 5:1 if a candidate makes it onto the ballot. To qualify for the public financing scheme, candidates must also reach a minimum threshold of $2,000 from 100 contributors for District Council candidates and $40,000 from 1000 contributors for mayoral candidates. The bill would not take effect until the 2020 elections.

DC would join an increasing number of governments nationwide that back political candidates with public money. Locally, Montgomery County will hold its first Council election with public financing for candidates later this year.

Proponents of the bill believe that it will amplify the voice of voters and eliminate “pay to play” politics. Some Councilmembers, such as Mary Cheh and Chairman Phil Mendelson, have been more measured in their comments, noting that this is unlikely to solve all the problems in DC political campaigns.

The measure does have one notable opponent — Mayor Muriel Bowser, who stated earlier this week that she will not support funding the program if the bill becomes law. Although the Mayor did not state the specific grounds of her opposition, she did say that she believes the current system works, noting that DC’s campaign rules are already very strict. Mayor Bowser’s stance against the bill could stage a showdown between her and the District Council when she releases her budget request later this year.

In any case, the debate over campaign finance laws in the District is certainly not over, and a number of other changes, such as bans on contributions from contractors, may be on the horizon.

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.