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Finance reform needs our help

A move afoot in Washington to again try to curtail the influence of big money in elections comes at the time of a revelation that a carefully orchestrated campaign by a handful of liberal foundations was the driver that pushed campaign finance reform legislation three years ago.

While members of Congress, including some who in their hearts knew the reform measures were wrong, believed the country as a whole was crying out for change, a group led by Pew Charitable Trusts was implementing strategies that gave that misleading perception. The New York Post last month broke the story after obtaining a tape of a speech given by a former Pew official before an audience at University of Southern California last year.

Why were Pew and other liberal groups interested in curtailing large checks - "soft money" - from going into political parties from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions? They felt their candidates were on the short end of receipts. So with a padlock on one area of campaign finance chests, money simply shifted to new pots not covered by campaign laws. These new groups - called 527s after a tax code provision - attracted multi-million-dollar gifts from individuals interested in one or more candidates.

So now, some in Congress want to bring the 527s under the same regulations of political parties. While this proposal should be discussed, other ideas ought to be explored, perhaps even backtracking on the infamous McCain-Feingold law.

The story of the Pew Trusts' deception of Congress illustrates the fallacy of relying on regulations rather than openness. Contribution lists of 501(c)3 organizations are not open to public scrutiny. So McCain-Feingold has allowed large contributors to merely shift their influence money to private organizations who share the same political agenda.

John Fund of The Wall Street Journal writes that of the $140 million spent over the last decade to promote liberal campaign reform, "a full $123 million came from just eight liberal foundations." Who contributed the money to the foundations the public has no way to find out?

Further disturbing is what might have influenced the Supreme Court in it 5-4 decision in 2003 to declare McCain-Feingold constitutional. The former Pew official, Sean Treglia, bragged in his speech last year that "almost half the footnotes relied on by the Supreme Court in upholding the law are research funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts."

Before Congress tries other "fixes" to control campaign financing, all sides of the debate should bring ideas before the public for new discussions.