In recent months, pay-to-play scandals have erupted across national headlines. Former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens was convicted for receiving gifts for his home. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had to withdraw his nomination for the Commerce Department under accusations that his aides steered a lucrative state contract to a generous political donor. And in the most infamous example of late, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly tried to auction off President-Elect Barack Obama’s vacant United States Senate seat.
Pay-to-play, or the exchange of privileges for campaign contributions, is an endemic problem in many governments, and takes advantage of the reliance of candidates and officials on campaign contributions. Pay-to-play bans, like the one recently upheld by the courts in Connecticut and New York City, prohibit those with direct interests in governmental decisions from effectively purchasing political results through campaign donations.
On December 19, 2008, and February 6, 2009, two federal courts upheld pay-to-play regulations in Connecticut and New York City, respectively, finding the laws to be constitutional. The Brennan Center applauds these important victories and the courts’ recognition of important measures that break the nexus between corrupting campaign contributions and elected officials.
To combat the widely held perception that lobbyists and contractors wielded undue influence over elected officials by way of their campaign contributions, the City of New York enacted important new campaign finance reforms in 2006 that:
- lowered the contribution limits for certain natural persons who have business dealings with the city, including lobbyists;
- extended the ban on corporate contributions to limited liability corporations and partnerships; and
- prohibited the matching of contributions, in the city’s public funding program, from contributors who have business dealings with the city, or are lobbyists or the spouse of a lobbyist.
Like the federal court in Connecticut, Judge Laura Swain of the Southern District of New York in the recent decision in Ognibene v. Parkes, No. 08 Civ. 1335 (2009), upheld the law. In her view, any infringement on the First Amendment rights of contractors and lobbyists was only marginal and was justified by the compelling state interest in combating the public’s perception of corruption.
Click here to read an editorial board memo drafted by the Brennan Center.