Let’s say you’re the head of an organization dedicated to fighting the influence of big money in politics. How best to convince a jaded public that you’ve got the answer for what ails America?
Why, spend lots of money, of course.
This may be the biggest irony of the campaign finance reform movement: Despite its image as a ragtag group of dissidents outgunned by America’s fat cats, in reality it is backed and funded by some of the most prominent foundations in the country.
While the nonprofit money spent on pushing campaign finance reform—around $70 million nationwide in the past five years, according to most estimates—is minuscule compared to the billions spent on campaigns, it nonetheless represents a significant investment by a few foundations in what has long been considered a losing political issue.
After all, campaign finance loopholes or issue ads hardly stir your average voter’s passions. A Gallup poll released last year asked voters to rank 19 issues in order of importance; “campaign finance” finished second from last.
But while campaign finance reform will probably never be more important to Americans than, say, education or Social Security, there is a strikingly broad consensus that the system needs reform: close to two-thirds of the voting public, according to recent polls.
Since the early 1990s, a group of large foundations has been laying the groundwork for the emergence of campaign finance reform as a serious issue: The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and the Carnegie Corporation, to name just a few.
These foundations have funded a variety of academic studies on campaign contributions from groups and institutes like the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles Federal Election Commission reports on its Web site, or the Center for Public Integrity, which produces widely-distributed reports on soft money.
These groups in turn have become a source for journalists looking for expert comment. The Center for Public Integrity, for example, was cited more than 700 times in a Nexis search of newspapers during the 2000 election season; its president, former 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis, is prized among journalists for his quotability.
Campaign finance reform is a fairly new concern for most foundations, becoming a major giving area only in the 1990s. In fact, voter interest in the issue tracks fairly closely to foundation giving patterns: a relative non-issue during the 1992 elections, before the big foundations began to give in significant amounts, by the 2000 primaries it was one of the mainstays of John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential bid and also a recurring theme for Vice President Al Gore. McCain’s bill banning soft money contributions and limiting advertising by outside interest groups (cosponsored by Wisconsin Democrat Senator Russ Feingold) passed the Senate by a whopping 59-41 in April; House passage is considered likely, and the president has indicated he will sign some form of the bill.
This legislative triumph is a major victory for foundations, which were funding campaign finance reform long before its current vogue. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Joyce Foundation considered dropping its support of campaign finance reform, which seemed to be going nowhere.
Joyce vice president Larry Hansen persuaded the trustees of the foundation to stay the course. “I made a pitch for them to hang in there with campaign finance,” Hansen told a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times. “I thought it was one area where the foundation could not say with a straight face that any progress had been made.”
The 800-pound gorillas of the group of foundations active in campaign finance reform are the $4.8 billion Pew Charitable Trusts and the $14.6 billion Ford Foundation. Since 1995, Pew has given 19 grants totaling $12 million to groups that track campaign donations. Officials at the foundation are pleased by what they see as real movement on the issue in the past year. “In 1996, these issues weren’t even on the table,” says Michael Delli Carpini, Pew’s director of public policy programs. “The public wasn’t really aware of stealth money or issue ads . . . . But this year, four of the major primary candidates were talking about it. It’s on the public agenda now.”
These grants have mostly gone to groups that track campaign money. The Center for Public Integrity used portions of its nearly $2 million in Pew and Ford money to produce the 1996 book The Buying of the President, which the center billed as “the authoritative guide to special interests that are bankrolling the presidential contenders.” The project has been extended past the 2000 election cycle with a Web site and searchable database of soft-money donors.
Pew is also funding—to the tune of $2.3 million—a project administered by a Brigham Young University professor that will break down soft money campaign contributions by congressional district, so that voters “will be able to find out precisely who’s spending money to influence elections in their district,” according to Delli Carpini.
A portion of the grant also went to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank and public interest legal center, to examine whether issue ads are distinguishable from candidate ads in any meaningful way. “Illegal money is now more prevalent in our elections than legal money,” says Joshua Rosenkranz, the center’s president, announcing preliminary results of the study. “The new Congress needs to get very serious, very quickly, about ending this travesty of a campaign finance system.”
Active, Not Activist?
Most foundations tread a difficult line on campaign finance reform, a topic with potentially explosive political ramifications. Both Pew and Ford cast their grants as public education and say they don’t advocate any specific legislative remedy. “We’re trying to generate a very public discussion of this issue—trying to create space for that discussion,” says Delli Carpini. “It isn’t our job to change the public mind.”
Marcia Smith, deputy director of the civil society program at Ford, says her organization’s position “is that campaign finance reform should be discussed, rather than promoting a particular type of reform.” Of course, “education” covers a wide range of territory, some of which sounds suspiciously like the sort of activism major foundations say they don’t fund. In 1999, for example, Pew gave $950,000 to the Committee for Economic Development for an “education effort designed to build a coalition of business leaders for incremental campaign finance reform.”
The Florence and John Schumann Foundation, by contrast, is open about its support for campaign finance reform—for the most part. If Pew and Ford have provided much of the money for campaign finance reform efforts, Schumann has been the most aggressive at pushing the issue onto the national radar screen. It is also the most ideological in its approach, advocating public financing of campaigns.
Schumann’s chairman, PBS eminence Bill Moyers, wants foundations to take a more active role in campaign finance reform efforts. “We believe the time has come to stop educating people and start pushing for change,” he said in a 1998 speech during his national road show on campaign finance reform. Moyers has given more than $15 million of Schumann’s assets—a relatively modest $90 million—to campaign finance reform groups.
Moyers’s activities landed him in hot water last year when he profiled the efforts of several campaign finance reform groups on a PBS special without revealing that the foundation he headed—and from which he drew a $200,000 annual salary—funded many of the same groups.
PBS later admitted that Moyers should have disclosed the information, though the network took no official action. The charges seem to have chastened Moyers somewhat: Officials at Schumann say they are considering cutting back on funding for campaign finance reform groups. Not surprisingly, the foundation denies a connection to the PBS flap.
Buying The President
One group that would be hit hard if Schumann backs out of the campaign finance reform arena is Public Campaign, which pushes for “clean money” laws that would finance political candidates who opt to forego private contributions. Public Campaign—whose single largest funder is Schumann, to the tune of more than $7 million—has a marked flair for the dramatic, in contrast to the more sober-minded analysts at the Center for Public Integrity.
In 1999, the group released The Color of Money, a study claiming that campaign finance laws cut minorities out of the political process. The introduction to the report called it “a portrait of a society wherein white and wealthy voters make the majority of election campaign contributions, in effect disenfranchising people of color.”
The group’s muckraking is equal opportunity, however: “From gun violence, to drunk driving standards, to children’s exposure to pesticides, to collecting child support, generous campaign givers often oppose what is in the interest of mothers and their families,” said Ellen Miller, Public Campaign’s president, in announcing a study titled Mothers, Money, and Politics.
Another recent press release aimed at college students purported to show how the quasi-governmental education lending agency Sallie Mae, credit card companies, university trustees, and banking industry lobbyists are in league to keep college loan rates artificially high. “The student loan industry has you at its mercy,” opened the statement, in the apocalyptic tone common to Public Campaign’s missives.
Public Campaign is officially nonpartisan, but the group’s activities show a distinct preference for Republican-bashing. “When it comes to telling nonprofit groups that traditionally advocate for the poor or liberal causes what they can or cannot say, [Republican Senators] have shown no hesitation in trampling on First Amendment rights,” said Miller in a 1998 commentary. The group also engages in regular race- and class-baiting, such as its rant against “a donor class that is far whiter, more male, far richer, and significantly more conservative than the country as a whole.”
Out In the Open?
Republicans, of course, grumble that these foundations are merely fellow travelers in Democratic efforts to counter GOP fundraising successes, but the party has little choice but to be gracious in public. “We don’t like the message, but they have the freedom to fund any cause they choose,” says a spokesperson for Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, whose passionate opposition to campaign finance reform has earned him the ire of activists. “We wouldn’t want to close them down.”
In private, Republicans are less charitable: one GOP staffer on Capitol Hill blasts Moyers in particular for his “arrogant stance that he’s above the fray, when in fact he’s as partisan as anybody.”
That comment pretty much sums up conservative complaints about the activities of foundations engaged in funding campaign finance reform: that they want to be seen as disinterested public servants sparking an important civic conversation as they pour money into a political fight.
Perhaps it is time that backers of campaign finance reform admit that they are advocating political change, and drop the fig leaf of “stimulating public debate.” But then, of course, they’d look like . . . interest groups spending money to advance their cause.
Justin Torres is managing editor of Philanthropy.