Founded in 1970, Common Cause (CC) is a “nonpartisan” lobbying and nonprofit organization that began as an outgrowth of the Urban Coalition Action Council. CC’s mission is to serve as a “people’s lobby” that “uphold[s] the core values of American democracy” by: (a) “creat[ing] open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest”; (b) “promot[ing] equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all”; and (c) “empower[ing] all people to make their voices heard in the political process.” At its inception, CC consisted of approximately 4,000 core members. By November 2017, it had 900,000 members as well as offices in 35 U.S. states.
The founder of CC was the late John Gardner, who served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson and has been described as “the engineer of President Johnson’s Great Society.” In addition, Gardner was president of the Carnegie Corporation from 1955-65.
Common Cause was one of the first groups in America to establish a permanent telephone bank to prod its members to contact their congressional representatives 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 legal voting age from 21 to 18. The organization found success again three years later with yet another key lobbying issue: defunding the Vietnam War.
During the Nixon era and after, Common Cause lobbied successfully for two Ethics in Government Acts — one in 1978 and the other in 1989. CC also supported the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 and the establishment of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008.
Since its inception, Common Cause has been on the forefront of campaign-finance reform efforts. For example, CC lobbying helped promote the successful passage of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act, which regulated political campaign spending and fundraising. The organization’s greatest success in this area, however, 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.
Through its Money in Politics program, CC continues to support the establishment of a rigid public – rather than private – campaign-financing system to “break the power of big money” contributions derived from lobbyists and wealthy donors. In its effort to “rein in” the “runaway political spending” that has turned the financing of American political campaigns into “a system of legalized bribery,” CC wishes to “amend the Constitution to reverse decisions like Citizens United.” That 2010 Supreme Court ruling left intact a federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from making campaign contributions to politicians, but nullified a provision barring such entities from paying for political ads made independently of candidate campaigns.
CC also seeks to “expose corporate power in government” and to “toughen disclosure laws” in order to “let voters know who’s trying to buy elections and influence in Washington and our state capitols.” Founded on the premise that “those who pay for [political] ads should be easily identifiable as to their background and sources of funds,” CC’s Accountable Ads campaign condemns “deliberately misleading ‘secret money’ groups … hiding behind generic and patriotic-sounding names while freely airing distortions and sometimes outright lies about candidates and issues.”
CC has lobbied heavily against the “rampant consolidation of media ownership” and the formation of “media conglomerates,” arguing that these trends tend to distort messaging, diminish diversity of opinion, give greater importance to audience ratings than to truthful reporting, decrease local control of programming decisions, and restrict the number of independently-produced programs and minority-owned broadcast stations. Through its Media-and-Democracy program, CC works on multiple fronts for media reforms reminiscent of the Fairness Doctrine; advocates for legislation that would prevent companies from acquiring a large number of media outlets; and calls for the imposition of “meaningful public-interest obligations” (which would include offering political candidates some amount of free air time for campaign ads).
Additionally, CC strongly advocates on behalf of “Net Neutrality,” describing it as “the principle of online fairness” that “enables [Internet] users to access the services they want — and to express themselves online — without meddling by Internet Service Providers or those with the most money.” Contrary to CC’s claims, however, Net Neutrality in practice would empower the Federal Communications Commission to impose all manner of regulations on the Internet.
Asserting that “the promise of broadband is transformative” insofar as it enables users to “access distance learning, find jobs, and advocate for community change,” CC has initiated a Broadband for All campaign aiming to “connect all Americans to affordable broadband.”
CC’s Fair Economy initiative asserts that “public policies bought with campaign contributions and big-money lobbying” are responsible for the fact that “the economic gap between the richest 1% of Americans and everyone else is larger than at any time since the 1920s.” To help combat this inequality, CC aims to “expose” the American Legislative Exchange Council, “the corporate backed lobby that masquerades as a charity while secretly advancing policies that put private profit ahead of the public interest in economic fairness.” ALEC is an association that drafts pro-free-market, pro-limited-government legislation for state lawmakers across the U.S. Moreover, ALEC supports the enforcement of voter-ID laws, immigration laws, and Second Amendment rights.
CC advocates a dramatic overhaul of the redistricting process by which most state legislatures re-draw the boundaries of their congressional and legislative districts every ten years. Lamenting the “unfair advantage” that this process has given to Republicans, who made enormous gains in the number of state legislatures they controlled nationwide between 2010-16, CC now argues that “independent commissions” or “non-partisan state staff” should henceforth be entrusted with the task of redistricting.
CC’s current board chairman is former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and its vice chair is Martha Tierney, who co-chairs the Colorado Lawyers Committee’s Election Task Force and is a cooperating attorney with the ACLU.
For additional information about CC, click here.