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Was I Part of "An Immense Scam Perpetrated on the American People"?

[Note: This is the real version of a post that I accidentally posted last night in the course of trying to edit it and fix a problem with line breaks and which I guess was public for about five hours until I realized the mistake. If you linked to or quoted the earlier version, please correct based on this one. Anyone interested in the changes from the earlier draft, I've noted them below in the comments.]

I feel a certain morbid obligation to address an issue that has emerged -- surely not by accident -- on some conservative blogs and the Moon/Murdoch media: the contention that "Campaign finance reform has been an immense scam perpetrated on the American people by a cadre of left-wing foundations," in the words of a New
York Post editorial three weeks ago.

The evidence for this pronouncement is made up of three exhibits:

1. Assigned the Whitaker Chambers role in this scandal is Sean Treglia, a former program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts and a counterpart of mine when I held a similar role at the Open Society Institute. In a speech last year, Sean essentially took credit for the passage of the McCain-Feingold law, claiming that he built the appearance of a mass movement for reform by persuading organizations to take up the cause, by asking the organizations he funded to "never mention Pew," and by following "the letter but not the spirit" of the law. Sean recently retracted his comments, saying, "me delivering a bad speech at a conference is a far cry from Pew purposely trying to deceive...and I am surprised and saddened that my presentation has led some people to draw that conclusion," an odd formulation.

2. In the role of the pumpkin papers is a report from a for-profit organization, PoliticalMoneyLine.com, which shows that foundation funding made up a large portion of the campaign finance reform movement, not a new fact. Unfortunately, this report is hidden behind a very expensive subscription wall, although all the right-wing bloggers seem to write about it knowledgeably. I have seen it, and corrected some immediately obvious errors. PoliticalMoneyLine.com normally does very good work, but matching up foundation's 990 tax forms and other public information with the 990s from the recipients is a lot harder than cleaning up data from the FEC on campaign contributions, or from the IRS on 527s.

The Post editorial was written by Ryan Sager, a product of the conservative journalism training system who takes credit for unearthing the "bombshell" Treglia video, all of which is posted on his blog.

Good commentary on all this is linked on Professor Rick Hasen's indispensable Election Law Blog. Hasen's own comments are helpful, as are the more critical thoughts of Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer and notable campaign finance reform skeptic. Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity has also joined this debate and deserves a special prize for attempting to engage with Sager.

First, let's be clear, this is all part of something bigger. A decision has been made to discredit campaign finance reform and the groups involved in it. The scare-mongering about the Federal Election Commission being required to regulate bloggers was the first hit, this is the second. Republican attacks on the watchdog groups that have been critical of Tom DeLay is a third. What's the real agenda behind these attacks? While some would like to repeal McCain-Feingold, I doubt that's the main motive here, since it's now a regime that both parties have learned to live within and that probably still hurts Democrats slightly more than Republicans. The goal could be to discredit McCain as a potential 2008 candidate or as a gadfly. Or it could be to discredit the critics of DeLay, or just to change the subject and put the groups on the defensive. That's the last I'll say about that, though, because just as the sources of support for campaign finance groups has little bearing on their arguments, the provenance of these charges has little
to do with whether they are valid or not.

I generally agree with Hasen that this is much ado about nothing, although I have to admit that Treglia sure makes it seem otherwise, and there are some real concerns. The basic story, stripped of hyperbole, is just this: some foundations ranging from the fairly liberal (OSI, Ford) to the moderate (Carnegie Corporation, Pew) to the conservative (Smith-Richardson) funded a number of organizations from the mid-1990s and continuing into the present that were working on issues related to money in politics at the state and federal level. The information and analysis that helped legislators make the case for the McCain-Feingold law and later its legal defense was a small part of that effort for most of these foundations, though a bigger component for Pew. All of it was public, on both ends -- the foundations make their grants public and the organizations make their funders public.

In fact, Kent Cooper, who runs politicalmoneyline.com, told me that the reason they chose to do a report on funders of campaign finance reform, as opposed to another issue, was for the very reason that the information would be much easier to find than in other fields, because the groups involved all felt obliged to go well beyond the letter of the law in
disclosure!

The breathless conspiracy talk on the right-wing blogs reminds me of reports one often sees about the school voucher movement and its funding by certain conservative foundations, notably the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Similar to Pew, Bradley and its former president, Michael Joyce, take credit for funding groups that promote vouchers, and many liberals believe vouchers too are "an immense scam perpetrated by a cadre of foundations." I've never had much patience with that analysis: school vouchers are gaining credibility as an idea because too many public schools stink. Campaign finance reform had credibility because politicians like DeLay are on the take and because the huge waves of corporate money in the 1996 elections were disturbing. To think otherwise is a delusion. Both movements existed before foundations supported them and they will continue, though weaker, if they are defunded.

Second, Sean Treglia's speech is really so over-the-top that it should create some doubt in itself. It's about as credible a "confession" as if I confessed to starting the Boer War. No history of political reform in the 1990s-2000s will have the name Sean Treglia in it, as the Washington Times editorial pointed out. The speech is an extreme manifestation of a syndrome one sometimes sees in the foundation world, where the power to allocate millions of dollars of someone
else's money can have undesirable side effects on the ego. (And I may have suffered from this side effect myself -- it's like having spinach in your teeth; you won't know and no one will tell you.) It is a tendency to confuse your power to allocate resources with the effort of those doing the work. It's comparable to the tendency of editors in
book publishing to refer to "my book" when all they did was contract an author to write it.

A particularly disgraceful example of this occurs in Treglia's speech when he talks about the Committee for Economic Development, a moderate-to-conservative business organization with a long and admirable history that released a a report on money in politics in March 1999 that called for generous public financing of congressional candidates. In Treglia's tale, he personally decided that the push for McCain-Feingold needed the appearance of business support, went to the CED and after much cajoling and offers of funding, persuaded them to endorse McCain-Feingold. If the CED wants to sue Treglia for slander, they are welcome to call me as a witness. The real story is that CED undertook a huge and serious project, before there was any funding
from anyone, to understand the problems of money in politics and propose a solution. They put together a task force of corporate leaders who in turn called in academics and lawyers on all sides of the issue and learned all they could in order to make a recommendation. I had the privilege of joining one of those long, thoughtful meetings and that experience, along with the report, left me with great admiration for these responsible, mostly Republican
corporate leaders. Pew deserves credit for helping to fund that effort after it started, but the effort was entirely the CED's own initiative, not Pew's and not Sean's.

Incidentally, the CED recommendation, like most of the work OSI and other foundations supported, was not just the limits-based approach of McCain-Feingold, but included significant public financing for congressional elections, so that candidates are able to run and be heard. To me, that's essential for real campaign finance reform, and at this point, if someone wanted to repeal McCain-Feingold in exchange for real public financing -- what the ACLU used to call "floors without ceilings," I'd be very interested.

On the politicalmoneyline.com report, I think it would be great if that could be made available to the public, in part so that organizations could check the information and correct it. It's also important to note that very little of the funding identified in that report had anything to do with McCain-Feingold per se. The distinction between funding that was intended to promote a particular solution on campaign finance reform and that which is in fact for research and public information totally unrelated to soft money is not at all clear from the report. Again, the best way to clear this up is to have the report be public.

There's a lot more to say, but let me quickly comment on point that I think is legitimately taken by Sager and others. The role of foundations in campaign finance reform, as in other issues, should be covered more thoroughly by the press. I think most foundations could deal with the scrutiny and many would welcome it and find it a healthy challenge. Apart from this issue, foundations are simply an important sector in our public policy because we long ago made a decision that many of the things that government does in other countries would be done in the U.S. through private initiative with a tax advantage. Foundations are semi-public institutions and should be treated and studied as such. Treglia's speech was addressed to an audience of journalists at a seminar on how to cover philanthropy, which perhaps is the one justification for what he was trying to do: he was basically telling them, here was a huge story you overlooked.

But the reason that the role of foundations in campaign finance reform was overlooked is absolutely not, as Bob Bauer argues, that the press favors campaign finance reform. It was overlooked because the press has no idea how to cover foundations at all. The role of foundations in the school voucher movement, noted above, is equally unknown, the role of conservative foundations in promoting radical legal doctrines is unknown, the role of liberal foundations in voter registration projects is unknown, the role of liberal foundations in, say, establishing after-school programs is unknown. There are always stories about George Soros, the individual, but virtually nothing about the foundation that he founded but which is managed by others. There is occasionally coverage of the Ford Foundation, the best known of all major U.S. Foundations, very little of its almost as large brethren such as Pew, the Carnegie Corporation, the Hewlett and Packard Foundations, MacArthur (apart from the fellowships), etc. Stephanie Strom of the New York Times is the first of its "philanthropy" reporters to stay on the beat long enough to get a handle on it, and good reporting is beginning to emerge. Perhaps Sager will eventually contribute to the journalism that leads to a deeper public understanding of this neglected sector.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Given that Sager doesn't (as you do) keep re-editing posts and flushing previous versions down the memory hole, it's rather hard to take your insinuations of his journalistic credibility (c.f. "...a product of the conservative journalism training system") seriously.

Posted by: Michael Edelman | Apr 6, 2005 1:58:47 PM

It is a perception that those on the left have a problem with the concept of honesty. They don't seem to understand it. They pooh-pooh it. Oh, I erased and edited my post? My bad. Ha ha.
They acutally do not see the problem with this kind of behavior. They really do not understand it when someone calls them a scum-sucking liar and fool because of it. However, I encourage them to never change.

Xiaoding

Posted by: Xiaoding | Apr 6, 2005 3:17:54 PM

Is there a link, or a cite, to Sean Treglia's retraction of his speech or recharacterization of it or whatever he did?

Posted by: Richard Riley | Apr 6, 2005 3:53:07 PM

"Given that Sager doesn't (as you do) keep re-editing posts..."
"It is a perception that those on the left have a problem with the concept of honesty...."

When trolls go insane.... or, at least, incoherent. But what else is new?

Posted by: Lee Scoresby | Apr 6, 2005 7:39:40 PM

Since there has been some suggestion here and on Ryan Sager's site that I asked for a "do-over" after being embarassed by my earlier version of this post that was not ready to be posted, I thought I would clarify the changes I made before the final version, only one of which was made in response to any of the comments on the earlier draft:

1. The earlier draft, which I'd worked on over a couple weeks on two computers, was garbled in places, had no title, no paragraph breaks, and no ending.

2. The draft referred to Sager as a "quasi-journalist," a loaded but meaningless phrase, so I removed the word quasi. In neither case did I suggest that there are factual errors within his reporting, though I disagree with his interpretation: he accurately reported a speech that was itself both incorrect and implausible, and he reported the contents of a report that the public cannot see to find out whether it's accurate or not. My earlier draft also suggested that Sager did not himself unearth the Treglia tape but that it had been given to him. On editing, I realized that I had no basis for making that accusation, so I didn't make it.

3. The draft had said that I did not think that the motive of the attacks on campaign finance reform was really to repeal McCain-Feingold. Sager's comment that that was indeed his goal reminded me that there are plenty of people for whom that is their goal, including probably Bob Bauer. (I would note the contradiction that "journalists" don't usually have specific legislative goals, but I'll make an exception here.) So I changed that paragraph to acknowledge that some people do want to repeal McCain-Feingold. I also added a paragraph about public financing which included the point that I believe public financing that enables political speech is preferable to the limits-based approach of McCain-Feingold.

3. I deleted a paragraph that pointed out that Pew had disclosed all their grants and that the difference between this and other Pew initiatives was that Pew usually puts its name on its things and is the main funder, which is unusual, so that in this case they were just behaving more like other foundations. I decided that had all been said elsewhere and that was just a superfluous paragraph

4. I added the necessary links (not all of them), an ending, a title, and paragraph breaks, and fixed some garbled sentences.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Apr 8, 2005 4:34:55 PM

Simply put, McCain-Feingold is unconstitutional. It's sad that the Supreme Geriatric branch of government missed that point, but BCRA contravenes the First Amendment. What part of that Amendment isn't understood here?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The law abridges the freedom of speech. Plain and simple.

Posted by: GunTrash | Apr 9, 2005 10:56:01 PM