A Steadfast Force in Dislodging Money From Politics

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fred Wertheimer is not what you would call laid-back. Earlier this year, the veteran government reformer canceled a two-week vacation to Sicily so he could attend oral arguments before the Supreme Court in an important campaign finance case -- even though he was not making the arguments himself.

For 36 years, Wertheimer has worked tirelessly to change congressional ethics and campaign finance laws. This year he conceived and championed the most consequential part of the soon-to-be-signed lobbying bill: a provision that requires lawmakers to disclose the names of lobbyists who "bundle" campaign checks for them.

The measure is a fitting coda to Wertheimer's long crusade to expose and limit the influence of money on politics. He began in 1971 when, fresh off Capitol Hill, he joined Common Cause as a lobbyist. From that perch he helped craft the 1974 post-Watergate law that established donation limits and imposed the first comprehensive system of disclosures for money given and spent in federal campaigns.

Bundling was the largest remaining hole in that regimen, experts agree, and Wertheimer had lots of help closing it. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saved the measure from the dead before it finally passed this month.

Wertheimer, 68, rose to national prominence as president of Common Cause from 1981 to 1995. Since 1997 he has headed his own small group, Democracy 21, which has continued his battle for a more open government with the backing of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Joyce Foundation.

"Fred was in the middle of the 1974 campaign finance law that was the beginning of the modern era of campaign finance regulation, and he's been in the middle of every major development in campaign finance since," said Donald J. Simon, a Wertheimer colleague and friend. "When you trace the arc of this field, Fred has been the one constant, the one key player from the reform perspective."

Wertheimer has made many enemies as a result. Even fellow gadflies sometimes think that his elbows are too sharp and that he focuses too narrowly on the proposals he prefers. But no one doubts his passion or commitment. Wertheimer, a native New Yorker who has a law degree from Harvard, shows up for work at 7 a.m. and does not go home until 12 hours later.

He does take Saturday nights off. For decades, he and his wife, Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio fame, have gone to a movie and to Bethesda's Pines of Rome for dinner with Steve and Cokie Roberts (he of George Washington University and formerly of the New York Times, she of ABC News and NPR).

But Wertheimer never gets too relaxed. The 1974 law also created the public finance system for presidential campaigns, a program now on the verge of collapse. He is determined to fix that before he considers his work complete. The new bundling provision was "one bookend" to his career, he said. "It is my hope that another bookend will be repairing the presidential public financing system."

Count on Wertheimer not to rest much until that goal is reached. The reason: His job is also his pleasure. "I've always had great enjoyment and satisfaction doing this kind of work," he added. "It matters, and it's worth fighting for."

Become a Lobbyist? Not Me!

The hottest rumor in town is that commissioner Annette L. Nazareth of the Securities and Exchange Commission is about to resign and take over the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. Just last week, a high-ranking financial services lobbyist assured me that the trade group for stock and bond traders has been actively courting Nazareth, who is half of a financial services power couple. Her husband is Roger W. Ferguson Jr., a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Word about this imminent hire, however, has not gotten to Nazareth. In an interview, she said she has not talked to SIFMA, has not been asked to talk to SIFMA and does not want to talk to SIFMA.

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