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Just three years after D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved a strict and controversial campaign finance law, At-Large Councilmember John Ray has launched a quiet effort to repeal it.
Initiative 41, which was passed in November 1992 and took effect in March 1993, was intended to reduce the influence of big money in District politics by setting a low ceiling on individual political contributions. The maximum individual donation to a mayoral campaign was slashed from $2,000 to $100. The maximum individual donation to a ward council candidate was lowered from $400 to $50. The initiative placed no restrictions on contributions to political action committees (PACs).
In July, Ray introduced a bill that would effectively undo the initiative. If passed, the “Contribution Limitation Initiative Amendment Act of 1995” will raise ceilings for campaign contribution to the limits that existed before Initiative 41. Ray’s proposal would place restrictions on PAC donations, limiting individual contributions to all PACs to $5,000.
Supporters of Initiative 41 are outraged at Ray’s attempt to overturn a voter-passed law. American University law professor Jamin Raskin helped the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now(ACORN) place the initiative on the ballot. He says that voters endorsed the measure because they want to reduce the power of special-interest groups and wealthy contributors.
“We have a political system where money talks,” says Raskin. “The politicians know that the big bucks are in the hands of people with vested interests, and this money distorts government priorities.”
The initiative has unquestionably reduced D.C. political campaigns’ ability to raise funds. When Ray ran for mayor in 1990, for example, he raised more than $1 million. When he ran again in 1994, he raised only a quarter of that amount.
But opponents counter that the real impact of Initiative 41 has been exactly the reverse of what was intended. While reducing the size of campaign war chests, it has reinforced the power of incumbents and enabled PACs to exert undue influence on politicians. Both incumbents and challengers have less money for their campaigns. This equation favors the incumbent by emphasizing the huge natural advantage of name recognition.
“It is an incumbent-protection initiative,” says Peter Williams, Executive Director of Common Cause/D.C., a campaign finance reform advocacy group that has opposed Initiative 41 since its passage. “We should not have an electoral process that ensures [an incumbent’s] victory.”
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More damaging to democracy, say critics, is the loophole in D.C. campaign finance laws that permits unrestricted independent spending. Instead of raising money from individual donors, candidates have circumvented the law by using funds from PACs.
“The limits are so ridiculously low that you have to turn to PACs for funds,” says Williams, adding that the number of PACs in D.C. has doubled since the initiative took effect.
Many cite Marion Barry’s 1994 mayoral campaign as the most egregious example of Initiative 41’s failure. During that campaign—in which Barry defeated Ray and former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly—Barry-backer Rock Newman contributed as much as $15,000 to the Washington Business PAC, while Black Entertainment Television, which is owned by local tycoon Robert Johnson, donated $10,000. Despite D.C. law requiring it to remain independent of the Barry campaign, the PAC paid for phone banks, mailings, and advertisements on Barry’s behalf, effectively permitting the candidate to skirt the contribution limits.
Ray’s proposed law would fix some of the glaring flaws in Initiative 41, says Williams. Ray would both cut contributions to PACs and limit donations to candidates by PACs and partnerships—measures that should reduce the influence of corporate donors. Ray also proposes a registration fee for lobbyists and PACs, the proceeds of which would go to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). These funds would help the OCF, which now operates on a shoestring budget, to investigate campaign improprieties. (But while he applauds much of Ray’s measure, Williams believes that returning to the old high ceilings on contributions is absurd. Individual donations should be restricted to $1,000 in mayoral campaigns and $200 in ward council races, he says.)
Ray’s bill represents the second attempt within the D.C. Council to scrap Initiative 41. Though councilmembers recognize that it protects their incumbency, they view it as a draconian restriction on fund-raising and an invitation to excessive PAC power. So in February 1994, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans tried to shoot down the initiative. Evans’ attempt failed because seven councilmembers were facing re-election that year, and nobody was willing to take the political heat for attacking a popular initiative. But 1995 is an off-year, and initiative opponents have found the perfect sponsor in Ray, who is retiring from the council when his term ends in January 1997. No other councilmembers have signed on as co-sponsors, but according to a council staffer, Evans, Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, and Chairman Dave Clarke all strongly support the bill.
“[Ray] has never been in the forefront with this issue. I am sure he is doing this at the behest and for the benefit of other councilmembers,” says campaign finance activist Dorothy Brizill.
Ray and his colleagues—undoubtedly terrified of public indignation—are doing everything they can to keep his proposal under wraps. Ray declined to comment on the bill, which has been forwarded to Brazil’s government operations committee. Brizill predicts that Brazil will rush the bill through committee and to a full council vote before the 1996 election campaigns start heating up.
The best evidence of the council’s sensitivity about the bill? Even D.C. officials who are supposed to know about it have been kept in the dark. Both the Board of Elections and Ethics and the OCF—the two agencies most affected by Ray’s proposal—say they only heard about the measure last week.