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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With I-735, Washington voters called for campaign reform, but Republicans in Congress unlikely to take action

Speaking with about as clear a voice as they ever do in Washington, voters last week told their congressional delegation to come up with a constitutional amendment to rein in campaign spending.

Initiative 735 has statewide support from nearly 63 percent of the voters, and is passing in all 10 congressional districts with about 65,000 ballots still to count. So what kind of action can voters expect?

In the short term, not much. But supporters say they’re building a movement that won’t go away.

Constitutional amendments that would fit the general description of I-735 – the initiative did not include specific language – are currently pending in the House and Senate. But only a few weeks are left in the current Congress, and most of the “lame duck” session will be taken up with trying to pass legislation to keep the federal government running for at least a couple of months until the new Congress gets settled next year.

House Joint Resolution 22, which was introduced in January 2015, has 162 co-sponsors, including six from Washington state. It never received a committee hearing, let alone a vote.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck said he and the other five Democrats in the state delegation signed on as co-sponsors, but none of the four Republicans did. The bill has only one GOP co-sponsor, which is a problem in a chamber where Republicans are and will be in the majority, and for a constitutional amendment that must pass each chamber with a two-thirds vote.

A similar constitutional amendment is likely to be proposed next year, he said, but added: “I don’t have much hope the majority is going to change their minds” in the near future. If that’s the case, he’ll push for legislation to improve disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions.

Fifth District Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers doesn’t have a constitutional amendment on campaign spending high on her priority list. The Spokane Republican, who was re-elected Nov. 8 to her seventh term and serves as the fourth-ranking member of House GOP leadership, wasn’t available for an interview on the subject, but did release a statement through a spokeswoman.

“The congresswoman is focused on introducing legislation based on the priorities she hears in conversations with the people of Eastern Washington,” spokeswoman Molly Drenkard wrote. Those include protecting hydroelectric dams, forestry reform, improving service for veterans, helping people with disabilities and reining in government spending and “job crushing regulations.”

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are both co-sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 5, which would amend the Constitution to allow Congress and states to set limits on campaign spending and contributions. It has 42 co-sponsors – all Democrats – and like its House counterpart went nowhere after it was introduced in January 2015.

Easily elected this month to her fifth term in the Senate, Murray is now the third-ranking Democrat in that chamber. She also wasn’t available for an interview but released a statement saying she was proud voters made their position clear through the initiative.

Murray noted she had supported many campaign finance proposals through the years and called Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that wiped out some campaign finance limits, a travesty.

“While the immediate political landscape seems less favorable to reform, it will not stop me from continuing to fight for legislation that makes important changes to the ways campaigns are financed,” she said in the statement.

The bleak short-term outlook for action by Congress won’t deter supporters of I-735, said Spokane resident Stacy Cossey, a volunteer organizer for WAmend, a sponsor of the ballot measure. They’re not going anywhere, she said, and they’ll be asking members of the delegation “Why are you not listening to voters?” if there’s no action in the next Congress.

One reason supporters will stay involved, she believes, is that unlike most modern initiative campaigns in Washington, I-735 didn’t pay people to get most of its signatures. Seven out of eight signatures were collected by volunteers, Cossey said.

People were receptive to the need to restrict campaign spending during last fall’s signature drive, and that was before “astronomical levels” were spent on the 2016 presidential race, she said.

By passing I-735, Washington became the 18th state to call for a constitutional amendment on campaign finances, Cossey said. That’s almost halfway to the 38 needed to ratify an amendment.

“The whole purpose of this is to create a movement,” she said.