Common Cause Looks for New Battle to Fight
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page E01
When I think of campaign finance reform, I picture Common Cause. For as long as I've been in Washington, which is more than 20 years, the self-styled "citizens' lobby" has been synonymous with the battle to rein in wealthy political interests.
Sadly, those days are now gone. Common Cause doesn't care as much about campaign finance as it used to. And that says a lot not just about the organization but also about how lobbying groups in general must struggle to survive.
"We're in the process with a new president of reevaluating what other issues there are that we ought to be focusing on," says Common Cause board member Bradley S. Phillips, a partner in Los Angeles of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
Some fans of the organization are aghast. Take, for instance, Common Cause's initial reaction to a plan at the Federal Election Commission to regulate "527" organizations, the new vehicles for collecting unlimited "soft money" contributions, which have long been the bane of campaign reformers. To the shock of like-minded groups, Common Cause was adamantly opposed.
Although it's softened its objections lately, the very notion that Common Cause wasn't four square in favor of a crackdown on soft money was a clear sign that a new era had begun.
At the height of the Vietnam War protests in 1970, John Gardner, a former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founded Common Cause with the battle cry, "Everybody's organized but the people." The group went on famously to press for civil rights, lobby disclosure, government ethics standards, open-meeting laws and, most prominently, campaign finance reform.
Common Cause was also an innovator in methods of swaying lawmakers. It was one of the first groups to establish a permanent telephone bank to prod its members to contact members of Congress on issues. It orchestrated some of the original, large-scale letter-writing campaigns on such matters as the MX missile and the space-based missile defense system known popularly as "Star Wars."
But the core of its efforts for decades has been restraining the influence of money on politics. It was at the forefront of the post-Watergate reforms in the mid-1970s. And its role in enacting landmark campaign finance legislation two years ago was so significant that the new law could well have been called McCain-Feingold-Common Cause.
These days Common Cause isn't at the forefront of anything. Its grass-roots lobbying techniques have been replicated and improved upon by its corporate nemeses. And its heady success on campaign finance reform has had the effect of robbing it of its signature issue.
The organization has fallen victim to the worst malady that any group in politics can face: total victory. Without a big, long-term issue to pursue, its leaders say Common Cause has been forced to fight for its life.
As part of the attempted turnaround, Common Cause hired a new president, Chellie Pingree, a former legislator from Maine. Her job, to put it bluntly, was to find new reasons for the group to exist.
The board of directors was "looking for somebody who could think beyond McCain-Feingold, to think what happens next," says Pingree, who's been on the job a little over a year. And that's turned out to be a lot less about political fundraising than has ever been the case at Common Cause.
Pingree says Common Cause hasn't given up on campaign finance reform. The group is still interested in fixing the presidential campaign finance system and in pushing public financing, especially in the states, she says.
But Pingree concedes that she has chosen another issue -- battling against consolidation in the media business -- as the group's new major cause. "It's turned into a central focus for us," Pingree says.
One reason for the change, she admits, is that the public gets more excited about taking on media giants than slogging through what remains of the campaign finance issue. "No one wakes up in the morning and says, 'Gosh, I want to fix the campaign finance system,' " she says.
Inspired by the prospect of battling big media, thousands of people have added their names to Common Cause's e-mail list. The organization's young staffers are so moved by the issue that they stick signs on their office windows to taunt employees of the National Association of Broadcasters, whose headquarters is in plain sight across Connecticut Avenue.
What's more, Common Cause's membership has started to expand again, which was badly needed. Membership today stands at 190,000, not quite double the number when Gardner got things going 34 years ago. Based on early returns, Pingree thinks the media issue has the potential to keep the organization growing and also to help attract younger members. The average Common Causer at the moment is in her sixties.
To keep an organization fresh and vital, Pingree says, "You have to be talking to people through the issues of the day." And that doesn't include tromping back over the same old ground, which, she suggests, is precisely what campaign finance has become.
There's a great deal of truth to this. Common Cause is also far from alone in pressing the case against the clout of lucre on government. Dozens of other groups have taken up the cudgel in the years since Common Cause started the trend. The question for the organization, Pingree says, is "Where do we belong that we're not just duplicating what everyone else is doing? It doesn't matter what your memory of Common Cause is. A lot of people are doing that stuff."
There's another -- and to me disturbing -- reason for Common Cause's search for a new issue. The group was late in applying for foundation grants to monitor 527s. As a result, other nonprofit organizations, which were faster off the mark, got the money and therefore have an incentive that Common Cause doesn't to keep a close eye on the next phase of campaign financing.
"To be honest, we didn't get foundation money," says Celia Viggo Wexler, Common Cause's vice president for advocacy. "We didn't get the resources to do that kind of monitoring."
If any organization on earth understands the power of money in shaping behavior, Common Cause is surely that group. Only now, it appears, Common Cause is itself a case study.
Common Cause's quandary isn't unique. All organizations tied to politics have to contort themselves to stay current. "They have to stay true to their core membership -- that's why they're there -- but they also have to appeal to new members and new interests," says Suzanna DeBoef, professor of political science at Penn State University. "That can be a tough balancing act."
Scott Harshbarger, who preceded Pingree as president, says finding the right balance for a group as storied as Common Cause is particularly hard. "It remains a struggle," he says. And who knows? Maybe some day campaign finance reform will return to the top of its agenda.
In the meantime, only one thing is clear: The future of one of Washington's great lobbies is very much up in the air.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is kstreetconfidential@washpost. com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company