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Founded in 1968 as a “people’s lobby,” Common Cause (CC) is a registered lobbying and nonprofit organization which began as an outgrowth of the Urban Coalition Action Council (UCAC). Its mission is to “restor[e] the core values of American democracy” in order to ensure that “the people's -- rather than the special interests’ -- voices [are] heard.” CC has especially focused on bringing about campaign finance reform; promoting an “open, ethical, and accountable” government; pursuing media reform reminiscent of the Fairness Doctrine; and cutting military budgets in favor of increased social-welfare and environmental spending. As of 2010, CC claimed to have “nearly 400,000 members and supporters” and 36 state organizations.
The late John Gardner, who had formerly headed UCAC, established CC in 1970. Gardner also had served in President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet (as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare) and has been described as an “engineer” of the Great Society. In addition, he was president of the Carnegie Corporation from 1955-1965. In some of his political writings, Gardner lamented the 20th century’s preoccupation with “extreme individualism,” which, he believed, had a deleterious effect on man’s ability to meet his need for community.
Common Cause was one of the first groups in America to establish a permanent telephone bank to prod its members to contact their congressmen on issues of import. Toward that end, CC organized numerous large-scale letter-writing campaigns. Its first notable lobbying victory came in 1971 with the adoption of the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. CC found success again three years later with its earliest signature lobbying issue: defunding the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, the organization lobbied to cancel the MX Missile program and the Strategic Defense Initiative (the space-based missile-defense system known popularly as "Star Wars").
In the Nixon era and after, Common Cause lobbied successfully for two Ethics in Government Acts -- one in 1978 and the other in 1989. The organization supported both the Freedom of Information Act of 1975 and the Voting Rights Act of 1978. CC also supported the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 and the establishment of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008. The group has repeatedly used its ethics platform to censure conservative political figures, most notably Richard Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate, Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1985, Newt Gringrich in 1995, and House Majority Leader Tom Delay in 2006.
Since its inception, CC has been on the forefront of campaign-finance reform efforts. Its greatest success in this area came in 2002 with the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold), which banned “soft money” contributions to political campaigns but was later (in 2010) rejected by the Supreme Court as an infringement on free speech. CC continues to support the establishment of a rigid public campaign-financing system, and the prohibition of campaign contributions and fundraising derived from lobbyists.
Recently, CC has turned its lobbying efforts toward “media conglomerates,” which it says are “dangerous” to society because they allegedly control and distort messaging, diminish diversity in opinion, and value ratings over truth. As an alternative, CC advocates legislation that would prevent companies from acquiring “too many” media outlets. Common Cause also favors greater imposition of “meaningful public-interest obligations” on private media companies; this would include offering political candidates a certain amount of free air time for campaign ads. Additionally, CC supports “Net Neutrality,” a policy that would empower the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet.
A key partner of CC is Democracy Matters, a group which emphasizes “agit-prop theatre” and “guerrilla activism” among college students to promote far-left agendas.
Robert Edgar, former secretary general of the National Council of Churches, was named CC's president and CEO in 2007. Prior to that, he had served on the organization's National Governing Board. One of Edgar's first actions as CC president was to call for the impeachment of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, alleging that the Bush appointee had “politicized” the Justice Department.
Past presidents of CC include Fred Wertheimer (founder of Democracy 21) and Democrat congresswoman Chellie Pingree (who helped introduce the Fair Elections Now Act). Past chairs include Archibald Cox (U.S. Solicitor General under President JFK), Derek Bok (Harvard professor and co-author of The Shape of the River), and former Republican congressman Jim Leach.
In recent years, CC has received large amounts of funding from the Arca Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Century Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the GE Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, George Soros's Open Society Institute, and the Tides Foundation.