Corporate contributions to city political funds would be banned for the first time if a ballot initiative proposed by a group of District activists succeeds.
Bryan Weaver, a former D.C. Council candidate and advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan, said he will file papers Tuesday on behalf of the “D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust” to begin the initiative process.
The effect of the proposal — should the organizers gather enough petition signatures to put the question on the November ballot and a majority of District voters then approve it — would be to make the District’s campaign finance system more like the federal government’s.
Currently, the District allows business entities to donate directly to political funds — including campaigns, transitions, constituent services and legal defense funds — subject to the same contribution limits that apply to individuals. Corporate contributions to federal campaigns, however, have been banned since 1907; 21 states also ban corporate giving to local campaigns, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The initiative push comes amid renewed scrutiny on the practice of “bundling” — which, in District parlance, has come to describe the practice of multiple companies with related ownership donating in a way that appears to circumvent contribution limits.
Sylvia Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Deanwood, is serving as the committee’s chairwoman. Weaver said more supporters will emerge following Tuesday’s afternoon’s filing.
The initiative has a prominent backer already in D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who pushed to include new limits and disclosure requirements for “bundled” contributions and donations from city contractors. His amendments to a broad ethics bill were rejected by his colleagues.
Wells said Monday he would join initiative supporters Tuesday at the Board of Elections and Ethics for the filing.
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who shepherded the ethics bill through the D.C. Council, indicated last month she would pursue campaign finance reforms after the April 3 primary elections.
But Weaver said in an interview that he has little faith that council members will act to restrain the political influence of corporations, which they rely on to fund their campaign accounts. He said he’s heard previously from council members that they would tighten up laws, only to see no action.
“There is never the moment when the council will step forward,” he said.
Based on the latest voter registration figures, the Committee to Restore Public Trust will have 180 days to collect 22,723 valid signatures from registered District voters — 5 percent of the city total — to get on the November ballot.
There is precedent for a grassroots initiative effort succeeding. District voters have voted in favor of ballot questions supporting medical marijuana (1998) and term limits (1994), though both ran into obstacles after passage — Congress prevented the city from proceeding with a medical marijuana program for more than a decade; the D.C. Council voted to overturn term limits in 2001, shortly before the first incumbents would have been prevented from running again.
The initiative’s language banning corporate contributions, Weaver said, is based on legislation that former Council member Kathleen Patterson (D-Ward 3) introduced more than a decade ago but did not pass.
”Ninety percent of the language I ripped off from her legislation,” he said, noting that the ban would extend to all political funds directly benefitting elected officials. Weaver said he expects Patterson to advise the group.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the landmark Citizens United case liberalized corporate spending on American elections but did not address the ban on direct contributions. Under the decision, corporations may now spend freely on federal elections via third party groups, such as political action committees and “super PAC” nonprofit organizations.
But some legal observers believe it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court overturns the ban on direct corporate contributions. A 2003 Supreme Court decision, Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, upheld the ban, but last year a District Court judge in Virginia overturned it in a ruling that cited Citizens United. It is unclear whether that case will reach the high court.
Regardless of its constitutional prospects, with ethics reform already a hot-button issue in local races, the initiative is likely to become a campaign flashpoint in the runup to the District’s April 3 primary elections.
Weaver said he expects to keep the focus on the politicians rather than demonizing donors. “I don’t want to paint business as bad guys,” he said. “It’s the inability of the council to regulate themselves.”
He said he expects the initiative to be a mostly volunteer-driven effort, though he did not rule out raising funds and hiring paid petition circulators.
The committee, Weaver confirmed, will not accept corporate contributions.