Seattle moved closer Tuesday to banning most political spending by “foreign-influenced” corporations, as a City Council committee advanced legislation that sponsor Council President M. Lorena González said could block Amazon and similar companies from using money to shape candidate elections. The committee’s vote was unanimous, so the full council is almost certain to pass the ban into law on Monday.
But González postponed a committee vote on other legislation that would limit all contributions to the political-action committees (PACs) that businesses, labor unions and other interests used to bundle and spend a record $4 million in last year’s elections. She said the council needs to further vet the nationally watched proposal, which would likely be challenged in court, though she and her colleagues did narrow a loophole that could have advantaged unions and grassroots groups.
Her campaign-finance reform committee voted 6-0 to recommend passage of the foreign-influence ban, which would apply to corporations with a single non-American investor holding at least 1% ownership, two or more non-American investors holding at least 5% or a non-American investor participating in decision making related to American political activities.
González said the move would “really help to address the appearance of corruption in our local elections.” She said she believes the legislation would cover “corporations like Amazon,” which dropped $1.5 million in Seattle’s 2019 district races.
An Amazon spokesman didn’t provide comment Tuesday.
The legislation would prohibit foreign-influenced corporations from contributing money to Seattle candidates and from spending independently on candidate elections, though such companies could still spend on ballot-measure campaigns.
González and other boosters contend the ban is sensible and legally sound because United States law already prohibits foreign individuals and foreign-based entities from making contributions in American elections.
Federal Election Commission chair Ellen Weintraub has thrown her weight behind the Seattle legislation. The city would require corporations spending on Seattle candidate elections to certify themselves as not being foreign influenced, as defined by the legislation.
The proposal to limit all contributions to independent-spending PACs has come under more scrutiny. González initially packaged that measure with her legislation addressing foreign influence but she recently split them apart.
Today, PACs can raise and spend as much money as they want, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates they support or oppose. For example, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC last year raised more than $2.6 million from dozens of contributors, including $1.5 million from Amazon. Under González’s proposal, contributions to such PACs would be limited to $5,000 in most cases.
An earlier version of the legislation would have exempted contributions by groups with a large number of small-dollar donations, but González and her colleagues narrowed that provision Tuesday, limiting contributions by such groups to $10,000.
She initially hoped to advance the legislation Tuesday but said more time was needed to address questions raised by the council’s four new members and outside groups.
“Some attorneys are concerned about it. Labor is concerned about it. Business is concerned about it,” said Cindy Black, executive director of Fix Democracy First, which has been lobbying for the legislation.
“We support more transparency in our electoral system, but the council must do it in a way that is legal. As the [American Civil Liberties Union] has noted, campaign-finance laws designed to target certain political voices are difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment,” said the Chamber’s chief of staff, Markham McIntyre.
Seattle may break new ground, because no city larger than St. Petersburg, Florida, has taken a similar step. National reformers who hope to see such a measure upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court are backing the attempt because they want to challenge the idea that the controversial 2010 Citizens United case, which enabled unrestricted spending by PACs, should also enable unrestricted contributions to PACs.
The city likely would be offered pro bono legal representation.
González said she expects the council to act on the proposal later this year, when she returns from parental leave. She said Councilmember Lisa Herbold will lead conversations about the legislation between now and then.
Herbold warned Tuesday the legislation would likely not “get big money out of politics” altogether, because it wouldn’t stop direct, independent spending.
For example, a donor no longer able to contribute more than $5,000 to the Chamber’s PAC could still spend an unlimited amount on its own, without collecting any contributions. That approach hasn’t been the norm in the past.
“They could write a $1 million check (to buy) a bunch of canvassers and a bunch of mail,” said Herbold, who learned recently about that possibility.
A third proposal, advanced Tuesday by select committee on campaign-finance reform along with the foreign-influence ban, would require commercial advertisers to maintain public records on political ads related to legislative decisions, such as those that ran during 2018’s head-tax debate.
Advertisers already are required to maintain public records on ads related to election campaigns but not ads related to nonelection issues.
To enforce the new laws, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission would need to hire an additional staffer at $149,000, according to the council.