In September of 2000, less than two years before the passage of McCain-Feingold, the liberal magazine The American Prospect put out a special issue devoted to campaign-finance reform. It was called, "Checkbook Democracy." And it was bought and paid for with a $132,000 check from the liberal Carnegie Corporation of New York, which has spent millions of dollars promoting laws to restrict political speech -- a fact the magazine never disclosed to its readers.
Welcome behind the curtains of the campaign-finance reform movement, where ideologues plot to restrict the speech of their fellow citizens while reserving a special free-speech zone for themselves.
Sounds paranoid? A little over the top?
Consider a report just out from the folks over at Political Money Line, "Campaign Finance Reform Lobby: 1994 to 2004." Ignored by the media to date, it details how the supposedly grass-roots campaign-finance reform movement has been funded over the last decade to the tune of $140 million. Of that $140 million, the vast majority ($123 million) came not from retirees scraping together their last nickels for the cause of democracy, nor from schoolchildren collecting deposits on cans plucked from dilapidated playgrounds.
No, the money came from just eight ultra-liberal foundations (including the Ford Foundation and George Soros' Open Society Institute), the same folks who fund: the Earth Action Network, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, the Naderite Public Citizen Foundation and the Feminist Majority Foundation.
That's quite a lot of money sloshing around a movement dedicated to "getting the money out of politics." Of course, the only place these people really want to keep the money out of is their conservative opponents' campaign war chests and the war chests of the independent groups that support them. To the reformers, reform is not an end, it is a means to their pre-existing liberal goals.
As Congress takes up legislation to close the 527 "loophole" that allowed so much pesky speech into the 2004 campaign, and as the FEC is forced by court order to look at ways to cleanse the Internet of insufficiently regulated political speech, it's worth understanding just how the campaign-finance reform lobby operates.
First, let's return to that bought-and-paid-for issue of the Prospect. On Wednesday, the magazine's founder and co-editor, Robert Kuttner, explained that this was one of its first ever "foundation-sponsored" special issues. Since then, he said, the magazine has been careful to disclose any financial contributions to coverage of specific topics right up front. "You probably found the one," he said.
Fair enough. But it's not really the magazine's actions here that should draw the public's attention. It is the campaign of media manipulation that has been quietly undertaken by the reform lobby.
Payments to the media found by Political Money Line include: the $132,000 to the Prospect, $69,000 to Public Radio International, $935,000 to the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and more than $1.2 million to National Public Radio for items such as, in the words of the official disclosure statements, "news coverage of financial influence in political decision making."
No wonder McCain-Feingold contained a "media exemption." The media -- on top of having their voices amplified when private citizens, labor unions and corporations are barred from speaking -- are relatively easy to write some checks to. (Millions of bloggers, on the other hand, might be a little harder to corral -- hence the calls for a crackdown.)
But it's not just direct payments to the media that are the problem. It's the climate of sanctimony that the McCainiacs have created. All of the major reform groups -- Common Cause, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the Campaign Finance Institute, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Responsive Politics, Democracy 21 and the William J. Brennan Jr. Center for Justice -- are funded by the same eight liberal foundations, and have received millions upon millions of dollars each.
Yet, by maintaining the fiction of independence from one and other, they appear to much of the press to be a pack of scrappy underdogs sinking their teeth into the ankles of the big-money men.
Well, it's a sham. It's a charade. It's a lie. They are the big-money men. And, with the release of the Political Money Line report, it's time the media started treating them as such. The billionaires and liberal foundations constantly calling for more restrictions on the freedom of ordinary Americans to assemble and speak are not a movement -- they are a lobby.
And the first lobbyist who should be called out is none other than the Reformer-in-Chief, Sen. John McCain. The senator has been caught with his pants down this week, accepting what are essentially campaign contributions to a phony think tank called the Reform Institute.
The Institute, according to its Web site, is technically a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, "representing a thoughtful, moderate voice for reform in the campaign finance and election administration debates."
In reality, however, the organization might better be dubbed McCain 2008 headquarters. The head of the Institute's advisory committee is none other than McCain, and his name appears in every other press release. What's more, the manager of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, Rick Davis, is president of the institute and draws a $110,000 a year "consulting fee" -- at least until the official campaign gets underway.
Major donors who wish to flatter the senator's vanity and give a boost to his presidential ambitions can write checks to the Institute in amounts that would be illegal many times over (under McCain-Feingold) if the checks went to the actual McCain campaign.
One such donor is Cablevision, which gave the Institute $100,000 right after its CEO, Charles Dolan, testified before McCain's Senate Commerce Committee in 2003. Another $100,000 check from Cablevision came into the Institute in August of 2004, 12 days before McCain wrote to Dolan about a pending pricing issue, urging him to "feel free to contact me and discuss these issues further."
McCain, of course -- ever the scrappy underdog fighting for the little guy against the moneyed interests -- argues that the donations and the political help to Cablevision have nothing to do with one and other. In fact, he argues, no donation to the Reform Institute could possibly curry favor with him. (Cablevision must really just love clean government!) "There's not a conflict of interest when you're involved in an organization that is non-partisan, nonprofit, nonpolitical," he said.
Well, McCain can tell that to the NRA, the ACLU, the AFL-CIO and the rest of the non-partisan groups that sued to overturn his law.
In the meantime, he should be convicted in the court of public opinion based solely on the "appearance of corruption" -- after all, that's the standard by which he judges the public's right to speak.
Given these shenanigans, will Congress really listen now that he's calling again for further restrictions? Well, he certainly knows where they live: "Some billionaire decides he or she doesn't like you in office, and they decide to form a 527 and contribute $10 million or $20 million and dive-bomb into your state or district," McCain said last month. "That should alarm every federally elected member of Congress."
Elected officials deciding who can and cannot criticize them -- that should alarm every citizen of the United States. Now, if only someone would pay The American Prospect to spread the word.
Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.