Tussling Over Campaign Finance

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1994

In the decade between 1994 and 2004, philanthropists proclaiming the importance of “taking the money out of politics” spent more than $140 million on politics. Eight liberal foundations supplied 88 percent of this funding that sought to restrict paid speech in political campaigns, with the Pew Charitable Trusts alone spending more than $40 million. Grants went to organizations such as the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Public Integrity, Democracy 21, and the League of Women Voters Education Fund. Large grants also went to liberal media organizations like NPR and the American Prospect to pay for stories on campaign-finance reform.

“The idea was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot—that everywhere [members of Congress] looked, in academic institutions, in the business community, in religious groups, in ethnic groups, everywhere, people were talking about reform,” explained former Pew program officer Sean Treglia at an academic conference after campaign-finance reform had already passed Congress. He added that he “always encouraged the grantees never to mention Pew” because the disclosure would clash with an image of grassroots activism.

Whatever the motives and tactics, the results were clear: In 2002, the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign reform act, a sweeping measure that regulated both dollars and words in political campaigns, was passed into law. Almost immediately, however, this legislative victory turned into a legal rout. Judges repeatedly trimmed the law’s limits on what campaigns, corporations, and labor unions could do and say. The biggest blow came in 2010, with the Citizens United ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofits, corporations, labor unions, and other associations.

The Pew Charitable Trusts halted its philanthropy in this area in 2008, and the philanthropic enthusiasts for throttling campaign spending gradually recognized that they had reached an impasse.