Ballot initiative would ban corporate donations in D.C. political campaigns

January 17, 2012

Corporate contributions to D.C. political funds would be banned for the first time if a ballot initiative proposed by a group of city activists succeeds.

Bryan Weaver, a former D.C. Council candidate and advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan, and Sylvia Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Deanwood, filed 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 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.

“It’s definitely a pretty steep hill to climb,” Weaver said. “You’ve got to channel anger somewhere.” He said he expects the initiative to be a mostly volunteer-driven effort, and that it will not accept corporate contributions.

D.C. residents have voted in favor of ballot questions 13 times since 1980 — supporting, for instance, term limits (1994) and medical marijuana (1998).

The language of the initiative banning corporate contributions, Weaver said, is based on unsuccessful legislation that former council member Kathleen Patterson (D-Ward 3) proposed more than a decade ago.

In a view echoed by several D.C. observers with experience in campaign fundraising, Bowser said she was concerned that business interests would seek less transparent avenues to influence D.C. elections should the measure pass.

“We have to be mindful that one action could lead to consequences nobody wants, like pushing corporate contributions into these nebulous PACs and ‘super PACs,’ ” she said. “We’ve seen evidence on the federal side.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission liberalized corporate spending on American elections but did not address the ban on direct contributions. Under the decision, corporations may now spend freely via third-party groups, such as the political action committees and nonprofit organizations Bowser mentioned.

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 upheld the ban, but last year a U.S. District 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 a hot-button issue in local races, the initiative is likely to become a campaign flash point in the run-up to the District’s April 3 primaries.

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.”

Douglas Patton, a lobbyist and prolific fundraiser for D.C. candidates who also is a former member of the Federal Election Commission, said he would welcome a ban on direct corporate contributions — particularly as it stands to curtail bundling, which he said has “gotten out of hand.”

“I think [donors] will find other loopholes, but it’s a good start,” he said. “It still won’t be direct influence and control of the candidates.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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