The Seattle City Council is considering a bold new campaign finance reform ordinance to end super PACs in city elections. We need limits on contributions to super PACs to help prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. And contrary to a common misconception, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision does not prevent states from limiting contributions to super PACs.
Under current Seattle law, there is a limit of $500 per year on how much a person can contribute to a political campaign for a candidate for city office, but there is a huge loophole: there are no limits at all on contributions to “independent expenditure” committees, also known as “super PACs,” that spend on a candidate’s behalf.
The proposed bill (CB 119730) will limit contributions to “independent expenditure” political committees, thereby ending super PACs in city elections. It builds on Free Speech For People’s work developing similar legislation in St. Petersburg, Florida (along with partners American Promise-Tampa Bay, League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, and the Leif Nissen Foundation), which passed in November 2017, as well as proposed legislation in Massachusetts.
We are proud to partner with Fix Democracy First in this campaign, and we thank Seattle City Councilmember (now Council President) Lorena González for her leadership in sponsoring this legislation.
Letters and testimony in support
- Letter from Professor Albert Alschuler, University of Chicago Law School
- Letter from Stephen R. Weissman, Ph.D., Associate Director for Policy at the Campaign Finance Institute (2002-09)
- Albert Alschuler, Laurence Tribe, Norm Eisen, & Richard Painter, “Why limits on contributions to super PACS should survive Citizens United” (law review article)
- Letter from Ron Fein, Legal Director, Free Speech For People
The SpeechNow Case and the Real World of Campaign Finance by Stephen R. Weissman Ph.D.
In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s SpeechNow decision, which created super PACs, the court theorized that contributions to so-called “independent expenditure committees” could not possibly result in corruption. In the real political world, however, as this study shows, top donors to super PACs and other independent spenders are not only contributing to these groups. They are simultaneously giving directly to the very candidates who benefit from their contributions to independent spending. The typical two-track donor supports multiple candidates in this fashion.
Thus, while independent spending groups are legally restrained from coordinating with their beneficiaries, donors to such groups are legally permitted to financially coordinate with these same candidates within certain contribution limits. When donors amplify their legally limited direct contributions to candidates with unlimited indirect support via independent spending groups, an “anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent expenditure group” certainly arises. These unlimited contributions intensify the dangers of quid pro quo corruption and its appearance that contribution limits were established to prevent.
This report explores the top 100 individual and 50 organizational donors to independent groups in the 2012 and 2014 elections. It focuses on those who gave to one or more of the six official national party committees and also contributed to unofficial party-linked Super PACs active in the same election(s).
There are federal limits on how much a donor can give to an official party committee per year, but following the SpeechNow ruling, there are no set limits on contributions to party-linked super PACs. For example, in 2014, the maximum a donor could give to a party committee per year was $32,400; assuming a donor who gave to all three committees of one party, that’s $97,200 to party committees. Under federal law, $97,201 would be illegal—too high a risk of quid pro quo corruption—but that same donor can give millions to party-linked super PACs. In essence, donors can multiply their legal direct party contributions by giving to party-linked super PACs at levels far beyond what Congress has determined is necessary (and the Supreme Court has so far upheld) to protect against corruption. This pattern of giving completely undermines the limits on contributions to parties.
The large donors surveyed in this study made very substantial contributions to their preferred party committees. The size of these contributions, while within legal limits, assured that these donors would be noticed by party fundraisers, many of whom were themselves candidates and elected officials. When these donors simultaneously embellished their financing by massively subsidizing independent Super PACs linked to the same parties in the same elections, they intensified the danger of corruption and its appearance.
By ignoring such political realities, the SpeechNow decision has helped undermine federal contribution limits, the primary means of federal regulation of campaign financing.
STATUS OF LEGISLATION
The legislation is currently before the Select Committee on Campaign Finance Reform.
- Video of Seattle City Council GESCNA Committee Meeting (Dec. 11, 2019) (starts at 45:00)
- Video of Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission meeting (Oct. 30, 2019) (starts at 27:00)
- Video of Washington Public Disclosure Commission meeting (Aug. 20, 2019)
- Video of Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission meeting (Aug. 13, 2019)
- Letters from Councilmember Lorena González, Seattle City Council
IN THE NEWS
- Crosscut, “Amazon tried to buy our elections. A new law will stop that” (Dec. 6, 2019)
- New York Times, “Amazon Tests ‘Soul of Seattle’ With Deluge of Election Cash” (Oct. 30, 2019)
- KING 5 News, “Seattle lawmaker wants to limit influence from big companies on city elections” (Oct. 30, 2019)
- Seattle Times, “Councilmember wants to stop donors like Amazon from using PACs to influence Seattle elections” (Aug. 14, 2019)
- The Stranger, “Seattle Might Try to Block Amazon from Spending in City Elections” (Aug. 14, 2019)
- Crosscut, “Seattle politics without corporate money?” (Aug. 14, 2019)
- Boston Globe, Prof. Laurence Tribe & Ron Fein, “How Massachusetts can fight foreign influence in our elections” (Sept. 26, 2017)
- Boston Globe, Prof. Laurence Tribe & Scott Greytak, “Get Foreign Political Money Out of US Elections” (July 22, 2016)
- The American Prospect, “Plotting the End of Super PACs” (July 21, 2016)