Common Cause's uncommon role

Common Cause, which is marking its 10th anniversary this week, has been an uncommonly succesfully lobby. It was in 1970 that John Gardner, who had been Secretary of Health, Education , and Welfare for Lyndon Johnson, launched the organization to lobby Congress and state legislatures "in the public interest." He was deeply concerned that lawmaking was unduly influenced, if not dominated, by "special interests" and that a "citizen lobby" was needed to respresent the common interest.

In terms of the depth and breadth of its efforts -- in the Congress and state legislatures -- there probably has never been a reform movement so active and with such a record of accomplishment. Its influence has been brought to bear on national policy issues from airline deregulation to gun control. But the major impact of Common Cause, at both federal and state levels, has been on political ethics and election laws.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), encompassing public financing of presidential campaigns and oversight of campaign ethics through the Federal Election Commission clearly is the citizen lobby's major accomplishment. Less obvious nationally is what state Common Cause organizations have done to clean up campaign fund raising and political ethics in some states.

As it enters its second decade -- now under the leadership of Archibald Cox, the redoubtable Harvard law professor who became a national figure when Richard Nixon fired him as Watergate prosecutor -- Common Cause must learn to live with the consequences of its reforms. There are problems with the FECA and its administration -- particularly loopholes in the controls on campaign contributions. Seeking to close one of those gaps, Common Cause has been rebuffed in a court suit in which it sought to limit fund-raising by groups supporting a candidate but not actually linked to his or her campaign. And there are grumblings about what another of Common Cause's victories -- the congressional shift away from the seniority system -- has done to party structure and discipline.

This is not to suggest that such reforms be abandoned; reforms like, newly designed autos, sometimes need adjustments in order to perform smoothly.

Just how "common" is an organization of 200,000 to 300,000 people in a nation of 230 million? The fact is that those who spend $15 to join Common Cause and $ 20 each year if they renew their membership tend to be well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class, and middle-aged. The membership is polled regularly on issues, and the Common Cause agenda for action is based on the preferences those polls indicate. Most often the causes it has espoused have been what most would classify as "liberal."

On balance, though, it appears the efforts of Common Cause have benefitted Americans in general and that the self-styled citizen lobby deserves a "thank you" as it enters a new decade.

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