Greater Greater Washington

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Ban corporate campaign contributions: Support Initiative 70

DC residents are tired of waking up to read about corporate donors who receive sweetheart deals from our elected officials. We endorse a ballot initiative to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns.


Photo by Frankie Roberto on Flickr.

The proposed measure, known as Initiative 70, would bring DC in line with federal law, as well as the laws of 21 states and countless other cities.

Despite the growing momentum behind this initiative, you'll hear lots of excuses in the coming months from incumbent politicians as to why this ban wouldn't work in DC. You can respond to these excuses with your signature.

Volunteers will be out at the precincts for primary election day on April 3, collecting signatures to get this initiative on the November ballot. Signing the petition is as important as any vote you make that day; volunteering to gather signatures would do even more.

Most sitting councilmembers aren't supporting this ballot initiative. Their desperate excuse is that a ban on direct corporate funding of campaigns could push corporate dollars into the shady world of political action committees.

But the council has the authority to regulate those PACs, so that argument rings hollow.

Those councilmembers would actually have you believe that the current system of direct corporate contributions to campaigns is transparent by comparison. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Corporate contributors make a mockery of campaign finance rules by cloning themselves to circumvent contribution limits. Corporate donors bundle checks from each of their corporate subsidiaries, even if those subsidiaries do nothing but write checks to councilmembers.

By giving money through these veiled spinoffs, corporations can give many times more than you or I can give. Is that fair? Should your neighbor be able to contribute 12 times more than you because he owns a business with 11 subsidiaries and you do not?

Often, these corporate contributors are land developers who establish each development as a separate limited liability company (LLC), and bundle checks from each LLC to politicians. Using LLCs is particularly shady, as the identities of their owners is legally not public information.

We can strike at the heart of this culture of pay-to-play in DC government by passing this ballot measure. Doing so would force councilmembers to be more responsive to ordinary citizens in order to finance their campaigns.

As long as our politicians bankroll their campaigns with bundled corporate checks, though, we can forget about regulating PACs or passing any other meaningful campaign finance reform. Just last December, the council voted down several amendments to include campaign finance reform in ethics legislation, by a vote of 12-1.

Dissenting councilmembers claimed they voted no because they wanted to wait to address campaign finance reform separately. We aren't holding our breath. Only 2 members co-introduced a comprehensive reform bill, but just last week the rest of the council found time to support a much narrower campaign finance reform fix, limiting money order contributions to $25.

That's a good step, but other issues are equally pressing. Or is the council only willing to deal with the problem of the day on the front page of the newspapers, and none other?

Our patience has run out. As long as corporate owners can walk to a sitting councilmember and, while discussing a city contract, hand them 12 checks from each LLC they own, residents cannot trust our elected officials.

No, Banning corporate contributions to campaigns is not sufficient to reform campaign finance. Yes, it will still be possible for PACs to influence DC Council legislation.

But Initiative 70 will make it a lot harder for corporations to buy votes, and will send a clear message to the Council that continued campaign finance reform, including PAC regulation, can be delayed no longer.

Sign a petition when you vote on April 3rd, or even better, volunteer for DC Public Trust and help collect signatures.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the initiative.

Comments

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Can someone, anyone please answer a few questions about the initiative? I am inclined to support it, but kind of shocked that no one has addressed questions like:

1) How would this law stand up again Citizens United?

2) Is there support on the Hill for this (they have to approve it, remember)?

3) Why are unions left out? They are big donors, as well as major bundlers.

4) Any thought as to what this will do to the current system (ie unintended consequences)? Corporations in DC will find a way to donate, I believe. I would hate to see PACs invade the city like they have done nationally.

Why won't Weaver and others address these questions, especially the one related to unions?

by Ward 6 Voter on Mar 28, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

This is something I would support. I don't know to what extent they can regulate PACs, but considering Citizens vs. United, wouldn't that regulation exclude SuperPacs?

the council voted down several amendments to include campaign finance reform in ethics legislation, by a vote of 12-1.

Now come on!!! This is really priceless. The council voted almost unanimously to implement extremely popular ethics reforms. The quote would suggest that the corrupt council almost unanimously voted down amendments but failed to note that they did ultimately vote for the ethics bill...unlike Wells.

And then it goes on to criticize how "wrong" the CM's were for suggesting they'd rather address campaign reform in a separate bill but the Saint was heralded for standing on "principle" in his vote against the ethics bill..since he felt it didn't go far enough.

My head is spinning now.

Is it possible to be a bit more objective when it come to "The One."

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

The misinformation about citizen united is amazing.

It is very easy to ban corporate contributions to campaigns. Citizens United controls the rights of everyone -- even corporations -- to run their own advertisements on political issues.

Is there a link to the actual language?

by charlie on Mar 28, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

The language is here: http://dcpublictrust.org/wordpress1/about/

I've added the link to the post as well.

by David Alpert on Mar 28, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

@W6 voter, I believe there have been questions over whether you can treat union contributions in the same way you can w/corporations. I'm not sure if we have a proliferation of union bundling.

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

Please stop saying "corporate" when you mean businesses. Partnerships, LLCs, LLPs, etc... would be banned under this initiative (but not unions...) not simply businesses who have incorporated. You're trying to use the word corporate to conjure up images of big business, and that's simply misleading.

by @SamuelMoore on Mar 28, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the link.

Based on that, this is an easy case: legal. It just bans corporate donations.

Yes, there is a small risk that someome like David Thompson could set up an independent organization and do ads/field work for candidates.

Generally speaking, campaigns in DC should be pretty cheap.

by charlie on Mar 28, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

So if I own 3 corner stores in the District and have a good idea of who I think would be a good Mayor, I will be forbidden from contributing? Seems kind of ridiculous to me.

I hate to sound like a cynic, but it kind of seems like Weaver is just using this a way to get better known around the city and increase his chances of finally winning a race.

On the union issue, yes they bundle. The law has to be fair and equal if it is going to gain traction. But I assume the headlines in the paper everyday are enough to get the average, uneducated voter behind this.

by Ward 6 Voter on Mar 28, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

Ward 6 Voter: No, if you own 3 stores, you will not be forbidden from contributing. You, as an individual, can still give up to the maximum amount from your own personal bank account. You will not, however, be able to give 4 times as much, once for yourself, and once for each separately-incorporated store.

by David Alpert on Mar 28, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

That or you all in DC could quit voting for Democrats that are corrupt.

You know, get some GOP, Libertarians and Greens in there, it's called diversity.

by Jim on Mar 28, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

Bravo!

by Gavin on Mar 28, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

That or you all in DC could quit voting for Democrats that are corrupt.
You know, get some GOP, Libertarians and Greens in there, it's called diversity.

You mean like that model of good government, the poster child for anti-corruption in DC, the probable GOP nominee for Ward 7 councilmember . . . Ron Moten?

by dcd on Mar 28, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

@HogWash: The only person to mention Tommy Wells in either the article or the comments to this point is you (well, and not me, I guess, but I really didn't want to). You said you support the whole idea of Initiative 70, but then can't resist going of on a tangent about how even though you support the reforms the contributors/editorial board aren't objective when it comes to Wells. Seriously, why the fixation?

It's like Wells is your own personal boogeyman - you see him wherever you go, lurking in the shadows, even when he's not there.

by dcd on Mar 28, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

@DCD, uhm, the article is built upon the idea that the council should ban corporate bundling. It goes on to suggest (as an example of corruption) that the council was negligent in "voting down" amendments that would have been a part of the ethics legislation. You're correct, Saint's name is not mentioned but his vote is used as the example that other CM's should've followed. The problem w/the spin is that while the other CM's didn't vote in favor of the campaign finance component of the bill, they did ultimately vote in favor of it.

So yes, it seems dishonest to criticize the council for voting against amendments to a bill but not giving them credit for passing the ethics bill..while at the same time, crediting the Saint for being in favor of the amendments but not noting that he voted against the actual bill.

Wells isn't my boogeyman but it's helpful to check those who are unbridled and nonobjective in their support of him. In other words, don't tell me that I was hit by a bike when my leg is pinned underneath the Denali's wheel.

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

Hogwash -
"You're correct, Saint's name is not mentioned but his vote is used as the example that other CM's should've followed. "

"it's helpful to check those who are unbridled and nonobjective in their support of him"

Either stop constantly using Saint to refer to Wells or stop pretending that you are some paragon of "objectivity." The two things are not compatible.

by Thaps on Mar 28, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

Real campaign finance reform would be a ban on contributions from anyone except a natural person and would not allow bundling. No contributions from corporations, other business entities, labor unions, nonprofits, PACs or any other entity. This would probably require a constitutional amendment.

by tmtfairfax on Mar 28, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

The problem w/the spin is that while the other CM's didn't vote in favor of the campaign finance component of the bill, they did ultimately vote in favor of it.

I assume by "it" you mean ethics reform, because the Council hasn't passed campaign finance reform, right?

In any event, your complaint is that the article attacks council members for not supporting campaign finance reform, but doesn't give them credit for supporting ethics reform?
But the article isn't ABOUT ethics reform in general. The only reason it was mentioned was because that was the last time campaign finance reform was before the council. While it's a bit much to say that general ethics reform is irrelevant to this article, it's certainly tangential, at best.

I mean, sheesh, the article seemed to go out of its way NOT to mention Wells, or laud him for his stand on campaign finance reform. The only way it remotely referred to Wells was the note that the council declined to include campaign finance reform in the broader legislation by a vote of 12-1, and I suspect that the vote count was included to show how many Council members opposed campaign finance reform, not praise the one who voted for it.

those who are unbridled and nonobjective in their support of him.

I know you don't see it this way, but if you change "support" to "opposition," in the above sentence, you're describing yourself perfectly. I know, I know, everyone else just follows along after Pied Piper Wells and you're the only one immune to his siren song (wow, that's just an awful mixed metaphor), but as Thaps posted, the derision with which you routinely refer to Wells makes it impossible for you to plausibly claim the "objective critic" badge. That you somehow construed this article as a paen to Wells that required your "objective" rebuttal really demonstrates your reflexive dislike for and fixation with him.

by dcd on Mar 28, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

I'll take a stab at a couple of these. and I apologize in advance, because I have no idea how to make things italicized or bolded.

1) How would this law stand up again Citizens United?

It would be just fine. 22 states have laws very similar to Initiative 70 on the books and not one of them has been overturned.

2) Is there support on the Hill for this (they have to approve it, remember)?

Congress does not technically have to approve, so much as they must express their will to overturn. Rarely does Congress do so, and I cannot see them stepping in to actively overturn a citizen measure. When they do meddle in District affairs, it's oevr things like reproductive choice and syringe exchange.

Remember, Congress does not take action to legitimize DC laws. But they must take action to overturn them. That's a huge difference.

3) Why are unions left out? They are big donors, as well as major bundlers.

I can't answer this one.

4) Any thought as to what this will do to the current system (ie unintended consequences)? Corporations in DC will find a way to donate, I believe. I would hate to see PACs invade the city like they have done nationally.

As I mentioned above, 22 states have laws on the books similar to Initiative 70. Not one of them has seen Super PACs established to get around these restrictions.

by Birdie on Mar 28, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

Either stop constantly using Saint to refer to Wells or stop pretending that you are some paragon of "objectivity." The two things are not compatible.

I never thought I was here "pretending" to be objective. I do, however, consider myself as someone having the ability to read and decipher information. Anyone casual observer reading the article would easily believe the spin that the council proved their corruption by "voting down" amendments but not know that they also voted for the resulting bill.

I don't think you need to be objective in order to discern the veracity of the article. I shouldn't have to be a perpetual cheerleader for whatever's written here and even if I were, we all should strive to be judicious in how we deliver misinformation to the public.

Whether I'm objective should be irrelevant to that.

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 5:36 pm • linkreport

I can pick up on Birdie's answer and finish the union question. There are several reasons they aren't included in the initiative.

First of all, unions, as a percentage give a relatively small amount in DC elections. Furthermore, Unions have not been utilizing the same loop holes that many corporate entities have to skirt campaign finance laws as they are written now (the most prominent example being Mr. Thompson's numerous LLCs). Generally they give in one lump sum to a candidate.

Unions also give through PACs, however this legislation would do nothing to prevent corporations from doing the same (for better or for worse).

The focus is trying to make the process more transparent.

As previous posters note, this actually brings us in-line with numerous other jurisdictions. It is important to note that in these jurisdictions, none have seen the emergence of anything resembling the SuperPACs we see post-Citizens United in the Presidential race.

I hope that helps address the question, Ward6voter.

by Kevin O'Connor on Mar 28, 2012 6:56 pm • linkreport

I assume by "it" you mean ethics reform, because the Council hasn't passed campaign finance reform, right?

That's correct.

In any event, your complaint is that the article attacks council members for not supporting campaign finance reform, but doesn't give them credit for supporting ethics reform?

I would phrase it differently. My complaint is that parts of the article could give the casual (and not so casual) observer the impression that the entire council, save one, isn't interested in campaign finance reform...and that's not a fair way to campaign on this issue because it actually muddles the truth. This isn't some new approach by his supporters, I didn't create this Saint vs. Them dynamic. I credit the media/blogosphere. I'm also often critical of how information is disseminated to the public.

the derision with which you routinely refer to Wells makes it impossible for you to plausibly claim the "objective critic" badge...your "objective rebuttal" really demonstrates your reflexive dislike for and fixation with him.

Again, I'm not seeking to wear the badge. But I am also more consistent than many in limiting the roving standards I set for people just because I might like them. If you haven't noticed, most of my dissent is in raising the hypocrisy meter. You know like, "did they really slap the One on the back for voting against ethics reform?" Oh word?

FWIW, I don't dislike the One. I've never met the man and outside of this forum, he's never a consideration. I'm just not that personally invested in someone I've never met. I would hate for Gray to go down because I do believe he's the best we have out here right now. But while I might advocate for him, I'm not going to experience shortness of breath if he does.

Way too sensitive folks. Waaaaaay to sensitive. :)

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 7:12 pm • linkreport

@HogWash GGW had several posts during the ethics debate criticizing various aspects of the bill. Even if it was directly relevant to this post, why would we give credit to CM's for passing a bill that we found lacking?

Regardless, I think a casual observer would read this and get the impression that TWO CM's are interested in campaign finance reform (I think this because the article explicitly says two CM's co-introduced strong legislation), which really doesn't muddle the truth at all. If you want to make the argument that CM's other than Cheh and Wells are strong on this, I'd be happy to read it.

by Matt Rumsey on Mar 29, 2012 3:44 pm • linkreport

Even if it was directly relevant to this post, why would we give credit to CM's for passing a bill that we found lacking?

Because it's odd to criticize the council for not voting in favor of "popular" amendments that where attached to a "popular" bill but then turn around and give credit to people who voted in favor of the amendments but not the "popular" bill which the amendments were a part of. It's the "I was for before I was against" argument.

I think a casual observer would read this and get the impression that TWO CM's are interested in campaign finance reform

The obvious flip side is that any casual observer could also get the impression that Wells wasn't interested in ethics reform because he was the lone vote against the bill that most residents were asking for. He became a citizen of One.

I was trying to get more info on whether Cheh's recent proposal is "dead" or if there's more to be done.

by HogWash on Mar 29, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

It seems to me that we the people can either roll over and accept what the Supreme Court says or we can stand up and resist their obviously corrupt and partisan decision to overturn Montana law regarding corporate corruption or the appearance thereof. The ballot initiative process is the only process by which we the people can take matters into our own hands and prompt change. When all is said and done it is the will of the people which must be upheld, otherwise our cherished freedom will be completely lost. Please make it a point to sign in support of ballot measure 70 and give close attention to other ballot measures which will be coming forth on other issues. Direct democracy has got to bring change or our manifest destiny is doom.

by George Ripley on Jun 26, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

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