The Campaign Finance Conspiracy:

Ryan Sager makes some explosive charges about the campaign-finance reform "movement" in the New York Post. Specifically, Sager alleges "campaign-finance reform has been an immense scam perpetrated on the American people by a cadre of left-wing foundations and disguised as a 'mass movement.'"

Sager's charge rests largely on a video tape of remarks by Sean Treglia, a former program officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, explaining the role of Pew and other foundations in the campaign-finance reform effort. According to Sager:

Charged with promoting campaign-finance reform when he joined Pew in the mid-1990s, Treglia came up with a three-pronged strategy: 1) pursue an expansive agenda through incremental reforms, 2) pay for a handful of "experts" all over the country with foundation money and 3) create fake business, minority and religious groups to pound the table for reform.

Portions of the tape transcript are on-line here.

In addition, Sager cites a report by Political Money Line on the "campaign finance lobby." According to this report, some $140 million was spent on reform efforts from 1994-2004. Of that total, $123 million (88 percent) came from eight foundations, including Pew. This money, Sager maintains, helped create various pro-reform groups and funded efforts to increase coverage of reform efforts. Specifically, Sager alleges the following:

* 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. . . . the "Checkbook Democracy" issue was paid for with a $132,000 check from the Carnegie Corporation — which . . . has spent $14 million promoting the regulation of political speech in the last decade.

* Since 1994, National Public Radio has accepted more than $1.2 million from liberal foundations promoting campaign-finance reform for items such as (to quote the official disclosure statements) "news coverage of financial influence in political decision-making." About $400,000 of that directly funded a program called, "Money, Power and Influence."

NPR claims that there has never been any contact between the funders and the reporters. NPR also claims that some of the $1.2 million went to non-campaign-finance-related coverage. But at least $860,000 can be tied directly to coverage of money in politics.

* Lastly, the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation accepted $935,000 between 1995 and 2001 from liberal foundations promoting campaign-finance reform for things like a "training initiative to help television, radio and print journalists provide better news coverage of the influence of private money on electoral, legislative and regulatory processes."

The president of RTNDF, Barbara Cochran, assured me that "We did not receive money to promote campaign-finance reform." Cochran also made clear that RTNDF does not provide news coverage, it only trains journalists. But she wouldn't provide The Post with any of the training materials it produced with the foundation money.

Sager's final charge is against the media, which was "either too ill-informed or too unconcerned to figure out the fraud." On the tape, Treglia recounts a "scare" that Pew's efforts would be reported in the press, but it never happened; "journalists didn't care."

Sager's charges, if true, have disturbing implications: A handful of foundations with a specific political agenda implemented a successful campaign to change federal law under the guise of adopting "populist" political reforms, and the press never caught on (or, worse, never bothered to report it).

Pew Denies "Campaign Finance Conspiracy":

In response to Ryan Sager's charges that the Pew Charitable Trusts helped orchestrate an astroturf campaign for campaign finance reform, Pew released a press release stating in part:

As part of its mission to serve the public interest, and to help increase public trust and confidence in U.S. elections, The Pew Charitable Trusts has invested over the last nine years in nonpartisan efforts to help reform the role money plays in campaigns. We are pleased that our involvement, along with that of many others, could play a positive role in helping to spark a national dialogue and ultimately, agreement on options for change. . . .

Any assertion that we tried to hide our support of campaign finance reform grantees is false. As we do with all of our work, we have fully disclosed our support for grantees working on campaign finance reform in a variety of forms over the last nine years, . . .

The full release can be viewed at Rick Hasen's Election Law blog here. Hasen also posts his own comments, suggesting the charges are "much ado about nothing" here. [UPDATE: Sager responds to Hasen here and here.] [SECOND UPDATE: Sean Treglia issues apology for remarks here.]

A D.C.-based attorney with experience in campaign finance is also skeptical of Sager's claims. He writes, in part

The problem isn't the foundation funding, it's Sager's assumption or assertion that Congress, or some members of Congress, thought there was a groundswell of popular support for campaign finance reform in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and that such perceived groundswell was a result of Pew's "conspiracy."

I've followed campaign finance reform pretty closely, and worked on McCain-Feingold issues for clients. No one pretends that campaign finance reform is anything but an argument among knowledgeable specialists. It's inside baseball. There's no massive popular movement one way or the other, and no belief that any such movement exists - all the participants in the debate, as far as I know, recognize it's a technical regulatory matter and argue about it on those terms. Naturally the participants recognize that it has crucial public policy consequences - free speech, the nature of democratic procedures, etc etc - but it doesn't engage the public mind like, say, Social Security or Medicare or the death penalty, and no one claims it does. . . .

I reject Sager's suggestion that anybody in Congress, on either side of this issue, thought they were responding to any massive popular demand for "reform." McCain et al. certainly pushed it because they believed in it, but I don't think even McCain ever claimed he was riding some tidal wave of popular discontent.

Perhaps. Yet I certainly think it's fair to argue that the sheer volume of media coverage made it seem as if there was a groundswell for "reform" of some sort. After all, was this not part of the basis for McCain's 2000 presidential bid? Was this not why President Bush signed McCain-Feingold? Campaign finance experts, like Hasen or my correspondent, may have been in the know, but would the average Wall Street Journal reader or NPR listener have reached the same conclusion? I'm skeptical. Moreover, if there was not a widespread perception that there was grass-roots support for campaign finance reform, then the charge that incumbent politicians supported "reform" out of self-interest is that much stronger.

I would also note that Pew has been accused of this sort of thing before. Both local environmental activists and property rights advocates have accused Pew of constructing astroturf environmental groups to redirect environmental advocacy on issues about which Pew was particularly concerned.

Campaign-finance reform was justified, in part, on the grounds that big money wields disproportionate influence on public policy. Ironically, the success of Pew's efforts seem to support that claim. Whether Pew's activities amounted to a stealth "conspiracy" or not, there efforts prove that large philanthropic foundations are capable of shaping public debate and influencing the course of public policy — perhaps even taking it where the public does not particularly want to go.

Were NPR and TAP Bought?

Or, as Mickey Kaus puts the question, "How is the American Prospect different from Armstrong Williams?" The same question could be asked of NPR's coverage of political influence. Answer: The former received funding to report on "checkbook democracy" and "campaign finance regulation," while the latter received funding to discuss the President's education proposals.

Why is it any different if you substitute "Carnegie Corporation" for "General Motors" and "campaign finance regulation" for "auto regulation"--and "American Prospect" for "New York Times"?

Ryan Sager expands on the NYPost column that started this discussion nere. The Post also editorializes here, and Glenn Reynolds adds some thoughts here.

"Journo-Lobbying" at The American Prospect:

John Henke accuses Nicholas Confessore of "journo-lobbying" at The American Prospect years before Confessore made a similar charge against TechCentralStation. (Link via Instapundit.) See also here.