March 21, 2005

Much Ado About Pew?

Does this New York Post editorial detailing comments by former Pew officer Sean Treglia to a journalist meeting last year amount to a building "campaign finance scandal?" ("Scandal" comes from the title of an e-mail sent to me by the editorial's author, Ryan Sager.) It certainly gives fodder to conservative editorial writers such as John Fund, but what is its larger significance?

First, there's not much of a story to be broken here. If there was, Pew's funding role was "broken" with this 2001 report by Cleta Mitchell, Who's Buying Campaign Finance 'Reform'? As Bob Bauer--no friend of Pew to be sure---notes: "Those who follow campaign finance reform closely have known fully well that various organizations receive vast sums of foundation money to influence public, elite and Congressional opinion in favor of reforms. Few have ever believed in a 'mass movement' for reform."

Pew's involvement was hardly a secret. For example, I noted in my author's footnote to my Minnesota Law Review article on "sham issue advocacy" that "Research on this paper was made possible in part by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, through a program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law." As I noted here the only condition placed on my $3,000 grant was that I use the Brennan Center's data "for research I intended to publish. I ultimately did so, publishing my Minnesota Law Review article on overbreadth, an article whose conclusions I think were a mixed bag for the Brennan Center's reform agenda. Never did I feel any pressure to reach a particular result." (I've never received any other compensation from Pew that I know of, and I get no compensation from serving on the advisory board to the Campaign Legal Center---and as Trevor Potter will tell you, in the last few years my positions on issues like 527s have been opposed to those of the Center.)

The true story broken by the Post may be that Treglia was trying to pitch an exciting story to the journalists and may have exaggerated things a bit. (Bauer calls his remarks "somewhat more self-congratulatory than justified.") I lectured to these journalists at the same conference about the basics of campaign finance laws, and then left before hearing the other speakers. Certainly after my talk some of the journalists could use some waking up!

If the lesson of the Post editorial that through poor disclosure and the appearance of a "mass movement" Congress was in fact hoodwinked into supporting something they didn't really want, doesn't that make an argument for campaign finance regulation? That is, we can't trust Congress to get the right information in a poor disclosure regime, and a little money buys a lot of smoke and mirrors to get the agenda passed of a small group of wealthy contributors. Hasn't the Post, without recognizing the irony, made the case for strong disclosure laws and perhaps limits on contributions in some circumstances?

In the end, this is much ado about nothing. The amounts spent lobbying for campaign finance reform are much smaller than, say, the amounts spent lobbying for particular tax breaks or other advantages for business. Congress was not hoodwinked by Pew. A battle fought for 7 years in Congress ended when, through a series of interesting legislative maneuvers and the somewhat surprising position of President Bush, the legislation actually passed and was signed.

UPDATE: See Tom Mann's article from the Summer 2004 issue of Trusts (a Pew publication) on Pew's role.

Posted by Rick Hasen at March 21, 2005 11:22 AM