Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has elicited a surfeit of passion—-both apocalyptic and celebratory, but mostly apocalyptic—-over the effect it will have on American elections.
Virtually all of the commentary has been focused on campaigns for federal offices, but the court’s holdings, on broad First Amendment grounds, may render election laws in countless states, counties, and municipalities unlawful. So what about the District of Columbia?
“That is something we have to look at,” says Kathy Williams, general counsel for the Office of Campaign Finance. “It may require some legislative and regulatory changes.” And Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, who oversees the city’s campaigns-and-elections apparatus, is looking into what changes Citizens United might necessitate.
But one thing is for sure: Corporate money is already a more institutionalized part of District politics than it is at the federal level.
For one thing, corporations are banned from donating directly to federal campaigns, but in the District, they are allowed to donate directly, subject to the same contribution limits as individuals.
And as for the money that’s not given directly to campaigns, the “independent expenditures” that are at issue in Citizens United, corporations currently have a relatively free hand that may be about to become more free. Right now, as on the federal level, the District’s campaign finance laws recognize political action committees, subject to certain contribution limits and reporting requirements.
PACs are limited to accepting $5,000 from a corporation in election years; in non-election years, they can take as much as they want as keep it for the following election year, Williams says. Depending on how the decision is interpreted, in a post-Citizens United world, that $5,000-per-year limit could be no more.
How will this effect District campaigns in practical terms? Most of the District’s PACs do little but take money and in turn distribute it to candidates’ campaigns—-which, under the SCOTUS ruling, will remain subject to contribution limits. But some of them actually do spend money to independently influence elections.
Most recently, big-time independent spending came into play in the 2008 at-large council race, where the Citizens for Empowerment PAC, funded largely by Miller & Long construction and electrical contractor M.C. Dean, spent big money to defeat incumbent Carol Schwartz. Same went for the Nation’s Capital Committee for Good Government PAC, funded by parking companies. Both sent out numerous mailers to registered Republicans decrying her as a “tax-and-spender” and other bad words, leading to her upset in the primary and her eventual downfall.
But will this affect DCision 2010? If changes to the D.C. law and regulations are indeed deemed necessary, it’s unclear how fast the changes could be made. Portions of D.C. Code (§1-1131.01) and the D.C. Municipal Regulations (30 DCMR 3011) govern contribution limitations; a period of study would be required before the legislative or rulemaking processes begin.
So it’s hard to say whether the corporate independent spending limits would disappear by September, of if there’s even a single corporate interest in the city that would be interested in pumping in more than $5,000 on a single city race. (LL’s heard from more than one corporate donor that they’re grateful for the District’s relatively low contribution limits, lest Mayor Adrian M. Fenty‘s campaign try to squeeze more out of them.) But keep in mind that SCOTUS-prompted changes might have a liberating effect not only on corporations, but also on unions, which have been similarly freed from organizational spending limits.
Perhaps the American Federation of Teachers might have something to say about Fenty’s re-election, perhaps?