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Members of the Clinton administration boast that their boss has done more to promote the cause of campaign finance reform than any president in recent history. Perhaps. But staffers who point to Clinton’s use of the bully pulpit as evidence of his reform commitment mistake his real contribution: the fantastic fund-raising scandal now on display in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. Here, beneath the watchful gazes of Sen. Fred Thompson and Co., witnesses relate hair-raising tales of convoluted financial shell-games rigged to funnel vast sums of special interest money into the coffers of our major political parties—and that’s just the legal stuff.

Indeed, we may well owe this country’s First Fund-raiser a debt of gratitude. History suggests that, with an issue as dear to Congress members’ hearts— and careers—as campaign finance, it takes a good old-fashioned scandal to get the ball rolling. And despite the media’s decree that the Senate hearings are too boring for TV, the partisan bickering and fingerpointing that flavor the proceedings have kept the campaign finance issue in the daily papers.

The investigation also has politicians both past and present coming forward to decry the existing system. In late July, former Presidents Bush, Carter, and Ford jointly issued a public plea for congressional action on campaign reform. Former political luminaries Walter Mondale and Nancy Kassebaum Baker have been stumping around the country since March, drumming up public support for the issue. Meanwhile, back on the Hill, more than 70 campaign finance bills have been introduced as legislators rush to appear on the virtuous side of the debate. Foremost among these reformers are Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). Hoping to take advantage of the scandal and its resultant buzz, the two veteran crusaders for reform have vowed to bring their long-debated bill to the floor this month. President Clinton has issued a statement of “strong support” for the senators’ efforts.

Clearly, now is the moment for campaign finance reform supporters to join forces, sound the trumpets, and storm, not only the Hill, but also every congressional office in the country. However, those listening for the distant footfall of the troops are likely to be disappointed. Administration insiders say the noises they hear emanating from the activist community sound more like discordant babbling than a coordinated roar for reform.

“At this point, I don’t see much happening from the public interest groups,” confirms Leonard Weiss, Democratic staff director for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. “They seem slightly invisible. I just don’t see their effectiveness, and it really pains me. I want them to be effective.”

Correction. This country needs them to be effective. Campaign finance reform may be the defining public interest issue of our time. Even assuming there was no insidious Chinese plot to buy U.S. political influence, the antics of Charlie Trie, the Young Brothers, and John Huang add flesh to the bones of what we suspected all along: Rather than devoting their time—and the tax dollars that pay their salaries—to saving Medicare or Social Security, our elected officials spend their days dialing for dollars. (A process, it seems, that now requires knowledge of the international calling codes for Jakarta, Beijing, and Hong Kong.) And whether the funds are foreign or domestic, designed to snag a morning cup of coffee with Bill Clinton or an afternoon of bill-drafting with Tom DeLay, the real scandal remains the same: The American public is getting ripped off thanks to a campaign system that bestows enormous influence upon moneyed special interests, while turning our national leaders into high-class panhandlers. What’s more, as the fund-raising frenzy escalates, an increasing number of talented men and women, recognizing that perpetual begging is no way to spend a career, are opting out of public service, ceding the field to candidates whose primary talent is money-grubbing. When liquidity becomes the primary qualification for elected leadership—when Michael Huffington, Ross Perot, and Steve Forbes can become serious contenders for national office—one can only echo that sage former Senate majority leader, presidential contender, and fund-raiser extraordinaire, Bob Dole: Where is the outrage?

Excellent question. With the coming battle on the Hill, why aren’t legislators under siege from the likes of Public Citizen, Public Campaign, Citizen Action, U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), and, the granddaddy of them all, Common Cause? If the public is, as reform opponents claim, suffering from political malaise or resigned disgust, the public interest community should be laboring nonstop to get John Q. Public mobilized for the fight. Why then are we seeing so little coordinated action from the people who have made this type of crusade their life’s work?

Those involved with the campaign reform movement say the answer lies with the activists themselves. While passionate about reforming the system, the groups are hindered in their effort to fight the good fight by a number of internal factors: tactical errors, general disorganization, and a liberal dose of plain old infighting.

The result: “Campaign finance reform is a long shot this year,” predicts Weiss. “I just don’t think people on the Hill are feeling pressure to act.”

Out of Touch

For more than a quarter century, the not-for-profit advocacy group Common Cause has been synonymous with campaign finance reform. With 250,000 members nationwide and offices in almost every state, Common Cause considers itself the standard bearer for campaign reform. “We have 100 volunteers who come into our offices, we have 40 interns this summer, and what these people do is organize members by phone,” says Common Cause President Ann McBride. “We are the quintessential grass-roots organization.”

Unfortunately, most of Common Cause’s grass seeds have been sown inside the Beltway. David Bolher, an independent consultant commissioned in 1995 by Ralph Nader’s chief of staff, John Richard, to report on the state of the campaign finance reform movement, says the group’s grass-roots presence is more “façade” than fact. “Many Common Cause chapters are closing down, consolidating—many are one- or two-person offices without a lot of troops behind them,” says Bollier.

Over the last couple of years, Common Cause has moved to reallocate resources to the more populous states, cutting funds to offices in smaller states and putting them on what one state director calls “a starvation diet.” Among the states to suffer cuts is Kentucky, home to the Senate’s No. 1 campaign finance reform enemy, Republican Mitch McConnell (not to mention the state’s seven other congressional representatives, who could also stand a bit of goading). Common Cause Kentucky Chairman Richard Beliles notes that the $7,000 his chapter now receives from national headquarters is just enough to pay for the group’s bare-bones office.

Common Cause Kentucky’s part-time executive director, Ivonne Rovira, has made it clear that she considers the national office’s redistribution decision a serious mistake. “What they have effectively done is incredibly lowered their profile in 20-some states,” Rovira told The National Journal in an April 1 article. “And membership and money follow media attention.”

Rovira is not the only state affiliate feeling abandoned. “The efforts taking place in the smaller states are underappreciated—including by the national Common Cause office,” says another part-time director who asked not to be identified. “Taking funding away from us was a really bad mistake, because until recently when California passed its bill, all of the reform progress being made at the state level was happening in small states.”

Some state directors question whether their achievements are even of interest to their “out of touch” Washington counterparts, noting that reform bills passed in their legislatures have received little press attention or credit from the national office. “It’s like they don’t care,” says our self-described “makeshift” director.

Sadly, despite its shortcomings, Common Cause may be our best hope for achieving national reform in this Congress. Citizen Action and Public Campaign have given up on Congress passing reform this time around and are focusing on state efforts. U.S. PIRG, meanwhile, plans to spend the fall engaged in what Democracy Campaign Director Derek Cressman calls “defensive lobbying” (i.e., fighting against any “bad” reform bills that come up for consideration). As for Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen: “Their campaign reform efforts almost don’t even count,” says one Washington researcher with ties to the public interest community. “They are pathetic—to describe them as moribund is far too generous.”

“Despite a brave front,” concludes David Bollier, “there is a lot of disorganization and a lack of clarity within the movement.”

The picture painted by the activist groups themselves is, not surprisingly, quite different. Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, notes that her organization is sponsoring citizen caucuses around the country and will be running a 20-state ad campaign in the fall.

Similarly, Bob Schiff, the staff attorney at Public Citizen, says that although his group doesn’t have chapters outside of Washington, its members work in coalition with local groups such as environmental and religious organizations. “We held a series of press conferences during the Memorial Day recess, and we send materials out to people on our lists of groups.”

But the fear is that this scattershot approach doesn’t provide the groups with the grass-roots firepower—or the big funding—needed to move their agenda. “They keep huffing and puffing and issuing press releases,” says Bollier, “but they haven’t organized the people to make congressional representatives feel the pain. What reformers need is a surgical, we’re-going-to-make-McConnell-pay approach.”

Chuck Lewis, head of the research group The Center for Public Integrity, agrees. Although careful to point out what a tough job campaign reform activists face, Lewis thinks the state infrastructure is lacking. “Most reform efforts have been inside the Beltway. They’ve played an inside game strategy, which means the public has not been educated on the issues.”

Like Bollier, Lewis sees the need for coordinated operations in all 50 states, with activists holding individual members of Congress accountable to constituents. “No one is holding up votes and saying, `See, this person is voting against this.’ We need to be bringing this home to the community so members know there’s pressure building at home for them to deal with us. Somebody needs to put it in their faces. They hear it in the media, but it is almost all on a national level.”

As Ivonne Rovira told National Journal, “Let’s face it, Mitch McConnell doesn’t give a damn if there are nasty stories about him every day in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He’s worried about what The Lexington Herald Leader and the Courier Journal in Louisville say about him. Now, if they were on his butt every day, that would be very different.”

Ann McBride points to the local and national press garnered by Project Independence, a nationwide petition effort by 65,000 Common Cause volunteers (and a handful of professional organizers) to collect 1,776,000 signatures in support of campaign finance reform. What McBride does not mention is that the group’s original goal was to have these signatures ready by the July 4 deadline that President Clinton set for Congress to pass a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill. Officially launched in late March, Project Independence got off to a roaring start-500,000 names as of early June—only to fizzle, coming about as close to meeting its July 4 deadline as did Congress. The group’s modified plans are to try to get the number of signatures up to 1 million in time for a September presentation to Congress.

Certainly, even 500,000 signatures are nothing to sneeze at. But after all the fanfare and advanced publicity, Project Independence’s failure to meet its objective sends one of two messages to Congress: 1) The public is precisely as apathetic about campaign finance as reform opponents claim, or 2) Common Cause is too disorganized to meet a self-established—albeit ambitious—goal for collecting signatures, much less pose a serious political threat to legislators who don’t champion reform. Either way, for Congress members desperate to convince themselves and their constituents that campaign reform isn’t a major issue, the petition drive’s tepid results are a license for inaction.

When asked about other grass-roots efforts Common Cause is spearheading for September, Jennifer Lamson, the group’s vice-president for grassroots lobbying, says Project Independence is pretty much it. However, in some states, it doesn’t appear that affiliates are being seriously mobilized to join the national battle. Common Cause members in Arizona, Kentucky, and Nebraska—while very active in their local reform efforts—seem to have little information about or interest in the national office’s push for McCain-Feingold. Frances Mendenhall, part-time executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, says she recently received an e-mail from the national office announcing that the McCain-Feingold bill would be brought to the floor in September, but she admits, “I’m not a good source on the topic. Naturally I hope for the best, but I haven’t read up on the issue.”

A House Divided

Before the public interest groups can join forces to put serious political heat on Congress, they’ll have to overcome yet another key obstacle: infighting. Far from being united in their common pursuit, the major activist groups have pursued their diverse agendas, leading to what Bollier calls the “balkanization” of the activist community.

As our disillusioned Washington researcher puts it: “One reason we won’t win reform is that these groups all work together so badly. When you talk to them, they tell you how hard it is to get reform passed. Yes. But the untold story is that they don’t work together. A lot of money is raised and spent, but it’s not well spent because all of the organizations pursue their own little fiefdoms and never work together.”

Some of the differences are ideological, with individual groups adhering to their own vision of reform and pushing policy proposals tailor-made to fit this vision: Common Cause and Public Citizen have long backed McCain-Feingold, in all its many incarnations. U.S. PIRG backs the tougher spending and contribution limits in the proposal co-sponsored by Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), as well as the senators’ call for a constitutional amendment overturning Buckley v. Valeo. The League of Women Voters recently launched a $1 million ad campaign in support of the Ornstein-Mann proposal for incremental reform, while Public Campaign and Citizen Action want full public financing for elections as outlined in the Kerry Wellston bill. (For a summary of the major reform proposals, see sidebar.)

With an issue as complex as campaign finance reform, some philosophical differences are to be expected. But the toll such battles take on the activist community cannot be ignored. Take, for example, the reform fight in California’s last election, in which Common Cause and Ca1PIRG each championed its pet ballot initiative. (See “The Battle of the White Hats,” December 1996). After a stunning display of internecine squabbling, complete with television attack ads, Common Cause emerged victorious. But most observers considered the battle an absurd waste of time, energy, and good will, undermining what had previously been a solid working relationship between the two organizations. Unfortunately, insiders say the factionalism of the California campaign is a microcosm of what’s going on nationally.

In Nebraska, for example, Frances Mendenhall notes that, although Common Cause and the state’s League of Women Voters have been trying to forge a working relationship for quite some time, things never seem to pan out. “They consider us too radical.” Similarly, says Mendenhall, efforts to team up with the remains of Ross Perot’s United We Stand presence in the state “kind of got us in trouble because their goals are not a perfect match with ours.”

Such battles also ultimately drag down the larger movement. “The California initiative should not have been as rancorous as it was, leaving bitterness behind,” says Bollier. “It should have succeeded with the groups standing shoulder to shoulder and ready to move that energy on to Washington.”

Instead, a similar confrontation is shaping up on the national level. Common Cause’s Project Independence is pushing specifically for the McCain-Feingold bill. However, U.S. PIRG’s Derek Cressman says his group plans to actively lobby against McCain Feingold unless the legislation undergoes significant changes.

As the reform debate rages on, minor coalitions between the groups form and break and reform. The organizations’ energies (and funds), however, are ultimately being split among the numerous bills and proposals, saving reform opponents the effort of having to divide and conquer the public interest crusaders themselves.

Of course, not all of the discord stems from complex policy disagreements. “A lot of it has to do with personalities, with the activist elite not getting along,” says Bollier. “Some of this is based on arcane history going back five years on this or that legislative battle. These people’s egos and organizational agendas get bruised or derailed, and when that’s your life’s work, you don’t just brush it off.”

“There are no institutional bonds between these groups. There are no personal bonds,” confirms an inside source. “All of these people hate one another.”

For veteran reformers who have been laboring long and hard, hotshot newcomers can prove a threat not only to the old guard’s pride, but also to its political support and funding. For Common Cause, which does not accept foundation or PAC money, the primary battle is for membership fees and public donations. For many other “good government” groups, however, the financial struggle includes scratching and clawing for a share of the limited pool of foundation dollars. There are only a handful of foundations that fund this cause, notes a former staff member of Public Citizen. “The competition for grants is vicious.”

Right now, the new kid on the block—and the one in everyone’s cross hairs—is Public Campaign. Headed by Ellen Miller, a 12-year veteran of the Center for Responsive Politics research group, Public Campaign is focused on total public financing for elections. As groups like Common Cause pinch pennies, Public Campaign finds itself awash in dough from such notable patrons as George Soros, whose foundation has already awarded the group $3 million in grants. But with Miller focusing on state-based reform (and expressing staunch opposition to McCain-Feingold), it is unlikely that a dime of Public Campaign’s windfall will go toward lobbying Congress this fall.

Just as her organization treads on the toes of more established groups, Miller personally has been known to ruffle some feathers. More than a few people in the activist community made mention of her abrasive manner— hardly conducive to coalition building. “She’s one of the most tactically inept people around,” says a source familiar with Miller’s work. “She’s got her elbows flying all over the place trying to crowd out everyone else.”

Outspoken and unflinchingly direct, Miller is clear about what she perceives as the flaws of past reform efforts. “The difficulty in the last two decades is that it’s been such an inside game. It’s been a discussion held between Dupont Circle [where Common Cause’s and Public Citizen’s offices are located] and Capitol Hill. We’re trying to get beyond that.”

Whether Miller will serve to energize the movement remains to be seen; however, her effect on the tenuous relationship between the reform groups is already apparent.

The Bottom Line

With the legislative showdown over campaign finance reform looming, are the groups making an effort to table their differences? Bollier says he hasn’t kept a close watch on the public interest community in recent months, “But from what I’ve heard and seen, there hasn’t been much change.”

Some reform watchers are more optimistic. The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann, co-author of the Ornstein-Mann proposal, says he senses an emerging consensus, and Center for Responsive Politics Executive Director Kent Cooper says he sees “a little loosening to previous hardline stances.” Senator McCain too notes that Common Cause “has gone from the view that we had to have all of McCain-Feingold or nothing, to being willing to make some progress now and more later.”

Still, talking with even the most politic organization leaders, you hear numerous remarks along the lines of “this campaign is primarily ours,” or “other groups will come around to a more achievable agenda,” or that a particular group is nice “but not really focused on action.” And almost no organization could, when asked, come up with an example of effective programs or activities being independently pursued by another activist group. Hardly a promising sign of an emerging coalition.

Of course, some folks think the activists’ squabbling and disorganization don’t matter, because campaign finance reform ultimately won’t be driven by a public outcry. Len Weiss predicts it will take congressional challengers making reform a ’98 campaign issue before anything really starts to move. And former Washington Post columnist Paul Taylor, another co-author of Ornstein-Mann, predicts that reform “will come from more of a Hill thing than from public pressure.” Even the League’s Becky Cain says, “I don’t know if we’ll ever have people storming the gates on this issue. Will we see them marching on Washington to get it? I doubt it.”

But if reform advocates seriously hope to achieve real reform this Congress—or any Congress for that matter—they cannot afford to write the public off as a lost cause. The forces allied against reform are too well-organized and well-funded for the public interest community to allow its fragmented efforts and personal agendas to divide it. Political heavy hitters ranging from the ACLU and the NEA to the NRA and the Christian Coalition all oppose reform—and all have nice big budgets with which to express their commitment to the status quo. (In Kentucky alone, notes Richard Beliles, state anti-reform interests spent some $7 million on lobbying efforts last legislature.)

Whatever the individual and institutional differences among the public interest groups, they are missing an important opportunity to work together and exert targeted, coordinated pressure on the true enemy: legislators who oppose reform, including those who claim to support it while working quietly to undermine the cause. If the groups can agree on nothing else, it should be to systematically torment any legislator who fails to stand up for campaign finance reform at this crucial time. (And by “stand up,” I mean really work to build a reform coalition in Congress, not just grandstand for the cameras.) The key to change is public pressure—not a crusading president or a “reform friendly” Congress. After all, even the most reform-minded candidates often experience a change of heart upon taking office and realizing that they’ve joined the ranks of the incumbents, for whom the current system works so well.

Besides, as Senator McCain points out, with the scandal in the news and all of the big talk by Clinton and Congress about reform, if a substantive bill doesn’t get passed this time around, public cynicism about our “do nothing” legislators will skyrocket. Apathy will spread. And our elected leaders will continue to wander the streets with their tin cups, endlessly searching for their next sugar daddy.

Michelle Cottle

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.