Introduction by WILLIAM SCHAMBRA
AMY KAUFFMAN, Hudson Institute
GERI MANNION, Carnegie Corporation
CURTIS GANS, Committee for the Study of the American Electorate
STEVE MOORE, Club for Growth
Campaign finance reform is one clear example of public policy success for the mainstream foundations involved, even though it is often left unmentioned by the foundation sector and in the media.
Philanthropic foundations played a pivotal role in nurturing the efforts that made possible the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Through the McCain-Feingold Act, as it is also known, they sought to “improve disclosure, strengthen enforcement, ban or curtail soft money and regulate issue ads intended to influence elections.”
To draw more attention to this success and its implications, the Bradley Center brought together the Carnegie Corporation’s Geri Mannion, Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, and Steve Moore, who at the time was the director of the Club for Growth. (Moore is now president of the Free Enterprise Group.) Hudson Institute’s Amy Kauffman served as moderator. Many of the approx. thirty-five audience members, several of whom knew or had worked closely with a panelist or two, actively participated in the discussion.
NOTE: An echo of the reaction to this event can be seen in an article by William Schambra in the May 12, 2005 Chronicle of Philanthropy article, “In A World of Bloggers, Foundations Can Expect More Scrutiny.”
NOTE: Sean Treglia, formerly of the Pew Foundation, had initially accepted William Schambra’s invitation to participate as a panelist, but was unable to participate. He wrote a response to Schambra's Chronicle piece, mentioned above and published in the subsequent issue of The Chronicle. (Click on article title, above, for details.)
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act, came after foundations spent $120 million promoting campaign finance initiatives, began Amy Kauffman’s introduction of the panel. It did not quite have the effect that it was intended to have on the 2004 election, which cost a total of $4 billion (up $1 billion from 2000). Avenues for spending were not closed off. Corporate money still flowed in torrents. And Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 527 organizations [527s] strengthened ideological giving. To panelist Geri Mannion, Kauffman posed this specific question: Have the Carnegie Corporation’s goals been realized through its donations? Geri Mannion responded first, followed by Steve Moore and then Curtis Gans.
Since 1992, Carnegie has spent about $20 million on the issue of campaign finance reform, Mannion began. The foundation focused primarily on disclosure of contributions. Could the money be followed? To this end, Carnegie Corporation funded or founded two research institutes and offered training courses for journalists. In addition, various reforms were tried, and most failed. However, under President Vartan Gregorian, who came to Carnegie in 1997, funding was stepped up and came to include more initiatives at the state and local level. For example, Carnegie helped advocate for reforms such full public financing of state elected offices, now in place in Maine and Arizona. Carnegie has also supported litigation to defend reforms, and has funded research, mostly on soft money at the federal level.
As for BCRA, Mannion disagreed with Kauffman that it has failed. BCRA was never intended to take all of the money out of politics, she argued. It did manage to stop corporate contributions, at least in the form of soft money. There were more small donors. Labor was taken out of the equation. But Mannion also disagreed with William Schambra, who claimed that campaign finance reform was a success on the part of liberal foundations. “…[T]he Democrats hated campaign finance reform, and they hated foundations for doing campaign finance reform. We had as many people mad at us on the left as on the right.”
The 527s were perhaps the one unanticipated, and bad, consequence—but “nobody saw then coming,” Mannion told the audience. “And they certainly have become an issue.” Mannion went on to point out, however, that “the bigger issue is that fact that we have a Federal Elections Commission that is run by people who are, let’s just say, not very good at their jobs. They don’t know how to enforce the law.”
Carnegie will maintain an interest in campaign finance reform, Mannion concluded. “We see it as an important part of our democracy agenda.”
Steve Moore, the next to speak, told the audience of his experience heading one of the largest and most successful 527s of the 2004 election season. The reason for the success of 527s, in Moore’s view, is that they brought in money—in some cases even larger donations—from donors who in prior elections gave big contributions to the parties in the form of soft money. Closing one source of money in politics simply caused another to open. “The campaign finance bill privatized the functions of the parties, in a way,” Moore said. 527s, not the parties, were setting the tone and sending the messages people heard. “I’m not sure it’s a good thing,” he commented.
Moore took the opportunity, however, to point out that money in politics has steeply diminishing returns. You can only pump so much in, and beyond that it loses its effectiveness. You can only run so many ads and print so many posters. The trick is to command voters’ attention, for example by getting your ads in the news.
The biggest threats to democracy today, in Moore’s view, are gerrymandering and incumbency, not the money in campaigns.
All three panelists agreed that redistricting was necessary to stop gerrymandering and make elections more competitive.
Curtis Mans, the last to speak, took a moderate stance after placing himself in “the camp that essentially says most of what we have done since 1971 has, because of the limits imposed, created distortions, undermined accountability and limited systemic flexibility.” The greatest problem with reforms, in Gans’ view, is that the money no longer goes to the person who can most easily and most directly be held accountable for it: the candidate. Instead, reforms have seen donations received by political parties and now independent groups—the 527s. “These are people who have no responsibility to the political process; who are the most intransigent people in our politics; [and] who make it less possible to find the middle.”
Gans, like Moore, supports raising individual contributions, as BCRA did to an extent. However, Gans told the audience, “We need a[n]… approach other than limits. …Labor unions and corporations and individuals with money aren’t necessarily evil… They’re a part of American pluralism… People ought to be able to advocate at any point in the campaign for and against a candidate… People ought to be able to give money.”
Gans went on to identify what he saw as the reasons for the declining interest in politics among the electorate: a lack of civic awareness due to lack of education and little discussion of politics.
Mannion, in response to the panelists’ remarks, proposed a different kind of ideal: “If we actually—all citizens— paid $6 per voter, we could fund all elections in this country and you wouldn’t have to have special interests engaged…. [I]t could actually be something that would level the playing field and maybe make democracy seem a little bit more relevant to people.”
A lengthy question-and-answer session began with a good question from Pablo Eisenberg: “If you had to go back… and write a campaign finance law [from scratch], what are the major ingredients you would include in the bill?” Each panelist took a stab at an answer, and several members of the audience pitched in. For details and additional questions and answers, click here to read the full transcript.
This event transcript was prepared from an audio recording and edited by Krista Shaffer. To request further information on this event, the transcript, or the Bradley Center, please contact Hudson Institute at (202) 974-2424 or e-mail Krista at firstname.lastname@example.org.