The 1 percent have no shame. At a Hamptons fundraiser, donors proclaim their VIP cred and mourn that the masses get to vote. At the Supreme Court, justices reject Montana’s century-old election regulation with nary a hearing. And in Congress, the same Republicans who hailed Citizens United race to erase its promise of disclosure. These can be discouraging times for those who still believe in “one person, one vote.”
But there are reasons for hope. Voters across the political spectrum remain angry about money in politics and unswayed by the claim that cash equals speech. And they’re turning those gut intuitions into actions: cities and states—California included—have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United—a heavy lift, but a necessary one. A proposal to require publicly traded companies to disclose political spending to shareholders has received the greatest number of comments in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s history. And now the sanity has spread to our nation’s capital (though not to Capitol Hill): on July 9, activists submitted over 30,000 signatures to put a much-needed campaign finance reform on the local ballot.
The measure would ban any direct contributions from corporations to DC candidates. It was backed by local organizations, including the volunteer-led DC Public Trust, and by Public Citizen.
Direct donations from corporations to candidates are still illegal at the federal level (although, as Andy Kroll notes in a must-read Mother Jones cover story, even that protection is in the right’s cross-hairs)—hence the rise of Super PACs. But only twenty-one states ban corporations from directly funding state-level politicians. DC isn’t among them.
Aquene Freechild, a Senior Organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign, says the District’s referendum was spurred by both local corruption scandals and national politics. DC has offered an object lesson in the dangers of direct donations. A December review of campaign finance records by KUOW radio uncovered at least seventy-five examples of multiple companies, registered to the same address, donating (almost always the maximum contribution) to the same candidate. An “LLC loophole” lets companies breeze past the contribution limits by making separate donations through their subsidiaries. After Council member Tommy Wells failed to get other members’ support for a proposal designed to take on the loophole, he told KUOW, “I really don’t believe the majority of my colleagues realize there is a crisis in confidence and I think they are doing their best to not change the political world for themselves.”
So it falls to citizens to change the District’s political world, and the country’s. Good thing that, according to Freechild, many of the activists mobilized by the DC fight “are interested in engaging on the national level too, given the opportunity.”
Expect a fight. Opponents could still challenge the signatures, though Freechild says supporters submitted about 25 percent more than required. But the real struggle will be winning a majority for the measure on election day. Freechild notes that to avoid creating their own loopholes, proponents had to write a lengthy measure, whose many provisions could be distorted to confuse district voters. “We’re going to have to do some education,” she says. The main opposition message she hears is the one facing “any kind of campaign finance controls”: “that money is speech and corporations are people. While majorities disagree, Freechild says that “because we’re in Washington, DC, a lot of the people believe those messages or distribute them are here, so I have heard them more than in other places.”
Freechild notes that each avenue for reform has a role to play, and they reinforce each other. “Corporations would be less willing to give from corporate treasuries if they had to disclose it,” and so corporate cash would be both more visible and less prevalent under the new SEC rule. Getting state legislatures on the record in favor of a constitutional amendment shows a “willingness to ratify,” and “puts a lot of pressure on the Congressional delegation to also be in favor.” Even the amendment won’t be enough: “We also want to see public financing and full transparency.” But Freechild calls the chance to reform local campaign finance in the nation’s capital one component of “people taking their power, in democracy, to say we want big money out of our elections.”
Politicians often pride themselves on drawing their values from their home districts, and eschewing the culture of the District of Columbia. But when it comes to campaign finance, here’s hoping Washington, DC, sends a wake-up call to Capitol Hill.