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View latest John Fund on the Trail

JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL


Astroturf Politics
How liberal foundations fooled Congress into passing McCain-Feingold.

Monday, March 21, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

If a political gaffe consists of inadvertently revealing the truth, then Sean Treglia, a former program officer for the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, has just ripped the curtain off of the "good government" groups that foisted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill on the country in 2002. The bill's restrictions on political speech have the potential for great mischief; just last month a member of the Federal Election Commission warned they could limit the activities of bloggers and other Internet commentators.

What Mr. Treglia revealed in a talk last year at the University of Southern California is that far from representing the efforts of genuine grass-roots activists, the campaign finance reform lobby was controlled and funded by liberal foundations like Pew. In a tape obtained by the New York Post, Mr. Treglia tells his USC audience they are going to hear a story he can reveal only now that campaign finance reform has become law. "The target audience for all this [foundation] activity was 535 people in [Congress]," Mr. Treglia says in his talk. "The idea was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot. That everywhere [Congress] looked, in academic institutions, in the business community, in religious groups, in ethnic groups, everywhere, people were talking about reform."

The truth was far different. Mr. Treglia admits that campaign-finance supporters had to try to hoodwink Congress because "they had lost legitimacy inside Washington because they didn't have a constituency that would punish Congress if they didn't vote for reform."

So instead, according to Mr. Treglia, liberal reform groups created a Potemkin movement. A study last month by the Political Money Line, a nonpartisan Web site dealing with campaign funding issues, found that of the $140 million spent to directly promote liberal campaign reform in the last decade, a full $123 million came from just eight liberal foundations. Many are the same foundations that provide much of the money for such left-wing groups as People for the American Way and the Earth Action Network. The "movement" behind campaign-finance reform resembled many corporate campaigns pushing legislation. It consisted largely of "Astroturf" rather than true "grass-roots" support.

But the results were spectacular. Not only did the effort succeed in bulldozing Congress and President Bush, but it might have played a role in persuading the Supreme Court, which had previously ruled against broad restrictions on political speech, to declare McCain-Feingold constitutional in 2003 on a 5-4 vote. "You will see that almost half the footnotes relied on by the Supreme Court in upholding the law are research funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts," Mr. Treglia boasted.

Reporters are used to attempts to hoodwink officials into thinking an issue is genuinely popular, and they frequently expose them. But when "good government" groups like the Center for Public Integrity engage in the same tactics, journalists usually ignore it. Perhaps that's because Washington media types overwhelmingly wanted McCain-Feingold to pass.

It will be interesting to see if, in light of Mr. Treglia's comments, reporters continue to do so. The tape of his remarks, which Post editorial writer Ryan Sager unearthed, could provide material for a dozen stories on how campaign finance reform was really passed. The editors of Political Money Line note that while the 10-year lobbying effort to pass campaign-finance reform was a small effort as lobbying campaigns go, it succeeded in changing the fundamental rules of American politics.

The foundation blueprint may also be a model for future campaigns, as more nonprofit 501(c)3 groups (which rarely make lists of their donors public) get involved in the Social Security and legal reform debates. "We can watch the lighted [disclosed] money avenues, provide a roadmap of routes, and report on traffic patterns," says Kent Cooper of Political Money Line. "But it may be harder when most of the traffic is shifting to the unlit avenues used by 501(c) organizations."

In his recorded comments, Mr. Treglia expressed satisfaction at how the Pew Charitable Trusts were able to avoid public scrutiny of the $40 million the foundation poured into the campaign. "The strategy was designed not to hide Pew's involvement . . . but most of Pew's funding," he said. "I advised Pew that Pew that Pew should be in the background. And by law, the grantees always have to disclose. But I always encouraged the grantees never to mention Pew."

He acknowledged that this created an appearance problem. "Did we push the envelope? Yeah. Were we encouraged internally to push the envelope? Yeah. . . . We stayed with the letter, if not the spirit, of the law." But the subterfuge was indeed necessary. "If Congress thought this was a Pew effort, it'd be worthless," he confessed. Hence the need "to convey the impression that this was something coming naturally from beyond the Beltway."

The efforts of Pew and the other liberal foundations, which include George Soros's Open Society Institute and the Carnegie Corp., were aided by the news media's complicity. The American Prospect, a liberal magazine, put out a special issue on campaign finance reform in 2000 that was paid for by a $132,000 Carnegie grant--a fact the magazine failed to disclose.

National Public Radio openly accepted $1.2 million from liberal foundations to provide such items as "coverage of financial influence in political decision-making." Its campaign finance reporter, Peter Overby, is a former editor of the magazine put out by Common Cause, a major supporter of McCain-Feingold. No one suggests there was direct collusion between NPR and campaign finance lobbies. With the money and personnel available to NPR, there didn't need to be. Sympathetic stories on the need for campaign finance reform flowed naturally. Sounds like the kind of "faux news" that liberals are complaining the Bush administration was guilty of engineering when it put out video press releases or provided conservative commentator Armstrong Williams with a grant.

The media simply didn't think the involvement of liberal foundations in bankrolling campaign finance reform was a story. Mr. Treglia admits that "we had a scare" after George Will "stumbled across a report that we had done and attacked it in his column." But he said nothing came of it. "Journalists didn't care. . . . There was a panic there for a couple weeks, because we thought the story was going to begin to gather steam, and no one picked it up." And they easily could have. Mr. Treglia admitted that despite all the efforts to hide the attempt to deceive Congress about the true origins of the campaign finance reform lobby, "if any reporter wanted to know, they could have sat down and connected the dots. But they didn't."

Mr. Treglia isn't talking to reporters about his remarks at USC. But he has released a statement saying "it is incorrect to suggest that [Pew] would attempt to deceive or mislead about its funding efforts. I regret that my comments have led to any confusion." Rebecca Remel, Pew's president and CEO, says that "any assertion that we tried to hide our support of campaign finance reform grantees is false." No doubt Pew did comply with the technical requirements of the law, but it also certainly didn't follow the kind of transparency standards it demands of politicians or corporations.

The successful stealth campaign by the eight liberal foundations means we now have to live in the Brave New World of McCain-Feingold. Bradley Smith, a Federal Election Commission member, made news this month by warning that bloggers could face federal regulation because a federal judge had thrown out their legal exemption from campaign finance regulations. The Internet has been burning up with concern that bloggers could be hauled into court for, as Mr. Smith puts it, "any decision by an individual to put a link [to a political candidate] on their home page, set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done." Mr. Smith warns that "it's very likely that the Internet is going to be regulated" by the FEC unless "Congress is willing to stand up and say, 'Keep your hands off of this, and we'll change the statute to make it clear.' "

McCain-Feingold did little in last year's elections to limit the influence of money in politics, but a great deal to benefit incumbents and harm true grass-roots politics. Its ban on using soft money to run issue ads in the 60 days before an election mean that such ads will run earlier, make campaigns longer and allow incumbents to avoid criticism of their voting records. David Mason, who serves with Mr. Smith on the FEC, says that the incredible complexity of the bill is likely to lead to "invidious enforcement, singling out disfavored groups or causes" and "subjecting regulated groups to harassment by political opponents."

The next time Congress debates further "reform" of the rules for conducting elections, it would behoove all of us to learn who is really behind the effort, and what their true motives might be.

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