The effect of the proposal — should the organizers gather enough petition signatures to put it on the November ballot and a majority of voters approve it — would be to make the District’s campaign finance system more like the federal government’s.
Brown said that the initiative was born out of frustration that an ethics bill recently passed by the D.C. Council did not do enough to restrain corporate influence on elected officials. “This is an opportunity for civic engagement to come into play,” she said.
The District allows business entities to donate directly to political funds — including campaigns, transitions, constituent service 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 comes amid renewed
scrutiny of the practice of “bundling” — which, in D.C. parlance, describes the practice of multiple companies with related ownership donating in a way that appears to circumvent contribution limits.
The initiative has a prominent backer 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 joined initiative supporters Tuesday outside the Board of Elections and Ethics after the filing. They included several candidates for office and activists associated with progressive groups.
The filing came on the same day that Occupy protesters took to the U.S. Capitol a few blocks away to protest corporate influence in federal elections. The timing was coincidental, Weaver said, but several supporters did not shy away from Occupy-like rhetoric.
“Are corporations equal to people?” Wells asked. “I think the overwhelming sentiment in our city is that they are not.”
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who shepherded the ethics bill through the D.C. Council, reiterated Tuesday that she is committed to a “comprehensive look” at campaign finance. “It’s an urgent piece on our agenda,” she said.
But Weaver said he has little faith that council members will restrain the political influence of corporations, which they rely on to fund their campaigns. “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 D.C. voters — 5 percent of the city total — to get on the November ballot. First, the elections board must rule that the measure is a legal and proper subject for a ballot initiative, which could take several weeks.