D.C. must curtail corporate political influence

February 16, 2012

On Thursday, Feb. 9, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan ruled that the “Fair Elections to Restore Public Trust” initiative, a potential revamping of D.C. campaign finance law, is constitutional and not in conflict with the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision by the Supreme Court. Supporters will now need to collect 22,000 signatures from registered voters in the District before the measure can go before the public in a referendum on election day. The initiative proposes a series of measures that would bring D.C. campaign finance regulations into line with federal regulations. Although the proposed rules do not entirely curtail the insidious influence of money in politics, they represent a step in the right direction for D.C., which currently lags behind many states and the national government in addressing this fundamental problem in American democracy.

Currently, the District allows businesses to donate directly to campaigns, transition committees, legal defense funds, and constituent services. Contributions of this sort have been banned in federal elections since 1907, and Citizens United only allows donations to entities not technically affiliated with candidates, explaining the rise of Super PACs which operate outside campaigns. The proposed D.C. rules would emulate these regulations, and similar ones in 21 states.

The little financial regulation on corporate donations in D.C. at the moment relates to limits on how much corporations may spend on campaigns. However, the spending caps mean nothing, as businesses have found a loophole in the practice of “bundling.” Instead of contributing money themselves, corporations direct their funds to middlemen, who give to political organizations in multiple donations. By these means, companies are able not only to avoid contribution caps, but can band together to increase their influence. There are disclosure laws for contributions in the District, but they are too easily circumvented by use of middlemen.

Considering the size of the constituency each D.C. Councilmember represents, it takes very little money to give a candidate a big advantage in advertising and visibility. Without tightening campaign finance regulations, businesses can hold aspiring councilmembers hostage with threats to donate to another campaign. These businesses are often based outside the councilmember’s area, and can amass far greater amounts of money for political donations than the average individual citizen. As a result, their influence disenfranchises D.C. residents not fortunate enough to own a successful company.

Of course, there is a political obstacle to these reforms. As former D.C. Council Candidate Brian Weaver says, “there is never the moment in which the council will step forward.” Our current council clearly puts personal interest ahead of the public in attempt to maintain the status quo in D.C. election law.

The passage of Fair Elections to Restore Public Trust will come far from solving campaign finance issues in D.C. Corporations still have too much power to assert their will, and that threat to the sanctity of our democracy should outweigh any supposed speech rights that corporations have. Even so, the threat of Super PACs and other funding entities outside campaigns is less dire in a small environment like D.C., so this reform has the potential to considerably improve District government’s representation.

As new elections approach, it is essential for voters to recognize the incoherence of the law. Already underrepresented at a national level, the District cannot afford to continue to allow corporations this freedom to corrupt local democracy. Mitt Romney may believe that corporations are people, but District residents should not believe that until Texas executes one. It is in everyone’s interest that this initiative be on the ballot in November and eventually become law.

Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!


Read More

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Are there restrictions on union donations? If not, I fail to see the false furor here.