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After Victory, Reformers Start to Face Hard Times

Less than a year after celebrating the successful enactment of a ban on soft money, it seems that the reform community has fallen on hard times.

Following the passage of the most sweeping campaign finance reform measure in more than 20 years, groups such as Common Cause are grappling with the challenges of a shrinking membership base and difficulty in raising funds.

“Like many public interest organizations, Common Cause has faced a gradual decline in membership over the past 10 to 15 years,” Common Cause states on its Web site in a section outlining the group’s search for a new president to succeed Scott Harshbarger, who stepped down late last year.

“This must be reversed, both because of the resources members provide and, just as important, for their political clout,” the Web site continues, noting that it will need a “creative, sustained effort to attract new, younger and more diverse members.”

Active members of the group insist that Common Cause’s growing pains are no different than those facing other charities in the difficult post-Sept. 11, 2001, fundraising environment.

Nonetheless, whoever takes the reins of Common Cause will be be on a concerted mission to shore up the group’s fundraising.

An examination of Common Cause’s tax forms shows a 7 percent drop in the group’s total revenue between 2000 and 2001, from $9 million to $8.4 million.

In 1998, the group reported $9.8 million in revenues on its tax forms — 14 percent more than it raised in 2001. That’s why the group is looking for a new president who can “attract more major donor and foundation support,” according to its Web site. [IMGCAP(1)]

Fundraising, in fact, was so dismal last year for the group’s Texas chapter, which found itself $30,000 in debt after a failed fundraiser, that it considered shutting its doors.

Following a spate of news articles about the chapter’s plight, more than $70,000 in donations rolled in. In the end, those donations, coupled with financial support from Common Cause’s national office, kept the Texas chapter alive.

Since November, Common Cause has been engaged in a search for a new president and CEO but has yet to fill the crucial leadership position. Don Simon, the group’s longtime legal counsel, is temporarily filling the slot until someone is selected to fill the job permanently.

Insiders said the group has narrowed its potential candidates for the job to a handful of people and the organization is aiming to have its new president in place by the time Common Cause’s national governing board meets in March.

Despite these challenges, reformers say they are not giving up the fight.

“We have the most ambitious legislative agenda in town,” said Common Cause lobbyist Matt Keller, who ticked off a laundry list of items on the group’s reform agenda for the 108th Congress.

Keller insists that his group will continue to win its battles the way it always has — through public pressure.

“We think we can take the momentum we have with McCain-Feingold to push for the reform of the presidential system and the reform of the FEC,” he said of the Federal Election Commission.

Keller added that his group will also lead an effort for whistle-blower protection, push for free airtime for candidates, as well as spearhead a vigorous challenge to Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) sudden reversal of the House gift ban.

Flexing his muscle as the new Majority Leader, DeLay recently orchestrated a change in House rules reversing portions of the six-year-old gift ban that had prohibited lawmakers from accepting free trips and lodging in connection with charity events.

Groups like U.S. Term Limits, meanwhile, are decrying other recent rules changes, including the elimination of the eight-year term limit on the Speaker position.

But the additional reform measures that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his supporters believe could shore up the new campaign finance regulations will face an uphill battle in a Congress that is controlled by staunch opponents.

“The two biggest opponents of reform in the United States happen to control floor schedules for both the House and the Senate,” acknowledged Keller. “Other than that …”

Keller was referring to the fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading opponent of the McCain-Feingold law, has become the new Senate Majority Whip. DeLay, another fierce opponent of the legislation, has been elevated from House Majority Whip to Majority Leader.

Fred Wertheimer, who runs the pro-reform group Democracy 21, promised his group would also battle DeLay’s change to the gift ban, as well as pursue FEC reform, free airtime, and reforms to the presidential funding system.

But he said that the No. 1 goal at the moment is simply to try to keep the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act intact.

“The first item on the campaign finance reform agenda is a proactive campaign to make the new campaign finance law work,” Wertheimer said, and with good reason.

Even as the law is being tested by the courts — the Supreme Court will decide later this year whether the law is constitutional — party operatives and creative lawyers are already devising ways to get around the new regulations, which ban soft money, restrict issue advertising and tighten disclosure requirements.

Wertheimer promised that his group would keep a close eye on the so-called “shadow groups” that have cropped up as well as “conduct the same kind of public campaign to make the new law work that was put into passing the new law in order to ensure that it is effectively implemented in the 2004 elections.”

“What the Supreme Court says, obviously, will give a lot of guidance to future battles,” Wertheimer said, vowing to “work proactively to make it work” and not “sit by and watch opponents of the new law try to massively evade it.”

That said, even the law’s primary author seems to recognize that the new campaign finance law might have a short shelf life.

“Twenty years from now, there will be another reform effort, and it will be prompted by scandal and corruption as people figure out ways around the new laws,” McCain predicted earlier this month when he addressed a packed town hall meeting on the University of Utah’s campus.

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