The Seattle City Council’s impulse to rein in runaway political spending is reasonable.
Huge spending distorts the political process and creates the appearance, if not the reality, that the rich and powerful are buying election results.
But a bundle of legislation advancing at Seattle City Hall is the wrong response and won’t remedy the situation, exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
Council President M. Lorena González has proposed bills that will not level the playing field. Rather, they will radically tilt the field. Council members should pause and consider alternatives and the consequences before approving them.
The biggest beneficiary of these measures may be González, who has considered higher office and could run for mayor.
Her bills would block the city’s large public companies — namely Amazon — from participating in mayor, city council or city attorney elections. They also ensure that unions — her prime backers — can continue spending heavily on those races.
González, through a spokesperson, declined to discuss this with The Times editorial board.
This comes after Amazon spent $1.5 million in last year’s City Council elections. The company supported more moderate candidates than far-left, status quo candidates supported with comparable spending by labor.
The proposed legislation would block Amazon and other homegrown multinational companies from participating by invoking concerns about foreign influence on elections.
Foreign meddling is a huge concern, and strong regulations and enforcement are needed. But this legislation, using a template progressive political groups are pushing in states and cities elsewhere, is extreme and would have unintended, negative consequences.
Foreigners have been caught using private companies to hide political spending. So why not propose regulations bringing more transparency to those private companies? Instead, the proposal in Seattle and elsewhere targets publicly owned companies that already have extensive disclosure of their governance, ownership and business activities.
The legislation asserts that companies with 5% of their shares held by foreigners, or 1% by a single foreigner, are subject to foreign influence and therefore can’t participate in elections.
That’s a stretch. “Diffusely held shares, especially small fractions like that, do generally have very little influence on the firms’ governance,” said University of Washington Finance Professor Jonathan Karpoff.
Instead of creating an impossibly high bar for certain local employers to participate in their hometown elections, why not require them to attest that foreigners aren’t involved in their political activity? That’s good enough for the Federal Election Commission: Its rules allow entirely foreign owned companies operating U.S. subsidiaries to participate in local elections, as long as foreigners aren’t financing or involved with the donations.
The noble cause of preventing foreign influence on U.S. elections should not be weaponized to silence employers and create an unfair playing field that advantages labor. Instead of opportunistically using a template skewing its elections, Seattle should show leadership and find a reasonable, fair solution.