About Us

History and Accomplishments

 

Our Founding

 

On August 18, 1970, John Gardner announced the launching of a membership campaign for “Common Cause,” a nationwide, independent, non-partisan organization “for those Americans who want to help in the rebuilding of the nation.” Gardner, a Republican, came to Washington, DC in 1965 to serve as the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. Gardner later became chair of the National Urban Coalition, a group advocating for poor, minority, and working-class residents in urban areas and also founded Independent Sector.

 

During his time in the nation’s capital, a city teeming with special interest groups, he observed “everybody’s organized but the people.” That thought formed the seed of Common Cause, which Gardner established to represent citizens’ interests in Washington. Within six months, the organization had more than 100,000 members, many of them joining to oppose the Vietnam War.

 

From the letter announcing the formation of Common Cause:

 

The first thing Common Cause will do is to assist you to speak and act in behalf of legislation designed to solve the nation’s problems. We are going to build a true citizens’ lobby – a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation. … One of our aims will be to revitalize politics and government.

 

We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make. We want phones to ring in Washington and state capitols and town halls. We want people watching and influencing every move that government makes.

 

 

Early Years

 

"We must bring about a renaissance in politics ... Does that seem inordinately ambitious? It is. This is no time for small plans.”

-John Gardner

 

Since its founding, Common Cause has been involved in many of the most pressing issues of the day. The organization led fights for campaign finance reforms; ethics and accountability in government; and open government at the national, state, and local levels. We joined with coalitions fighting for civil rights legislation, ending wasteful weapons programs, and working for reforms to our nation’s system of voting.

 

Opposition to the War in Vietnam was a core part of the fledgling Common Cause agenda.  John Gardner called Vietnam “the most important issue in the nation today,” and Common Cause expended significant staff and other resources to urge Congress to pass a resolution formally ending U.S. involvement in Indochina. Common Cause went on to lobby successfully for a cutoff of funding for the war.

 

Common Cause led the successful campaign for the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 years to 18 years, bringing millions of young Americans into the political system.  One of our first reform efforts was aimed at making the U.S. Congress more open and accountable by putting an end to the stultifying seniority system, pushing for public votes on legislation, and opening committee meetings to the public. The Watergate scandal and the influx of dozens of new, reform-minded Members of Congress in 1974 spurred these and other reforms, most of which would not have occurred without the outside pressure and inside lobbying of Common Cause.

 

A signature issue for Common Cause throughout its history has been campaign finance reform. At the outset, the organization pushed for fundamental changes in the way our campaigns are financed. Early efforts gained the first significant disclosure requirements and limits on contributions. Later, again spurred by the Watergate scandal, Common Cause led the effort to pass a presidential public financing system in 1974. More recently, in 2002, Common Cause led the multi-year campaign to ban soft money, culminating in the enactment and successful Supreme Court defense of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (the McCain-Feingold law).

 

In 2007, Common Cause was a leader in the successful effort to pass the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, the most significant congressional ethics reform since the Watergate era. In 2008, we led and won the fight to establish an independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

 

Click here for a more detailed history of Common Cause.

 

Please visit PBS for video clips about John Gardner and the founding of Common Cause.

 

Past Presidents of Common Cause

 

Jack Conway

David Cohen

Fred Wertheimer

Ann McBride

Scott Harshbarger

Chellie Pingree

Bob Edgar 

Past Chairs of Common Cause

 

John Gardner

Nan Waterman

Archibald Cox

Ned Cabot

Derek Bok

Richard North Patterson

Jim Leach
Martha Tierney

 

The current chair of the National Governing Board is Robert Reich.

 

Accomplishments

 

"Common Cause ... has been an uncommonly successful lobby ... 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." - Christian Science Monitor

 

Common Cause has a respected tradition as an effective citizens' lobby working to ensure honest, open, accountable and effective government. Best known in recent years for its tireless advocacy of campaign finance reform, Common Cause spearheaded efforts to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the most significant campaign reform bill in a generation, banning political parties from raising and spending soft money.

 

In its early years, Common Cause was a leader in passing landmark campaign finance reforms, including a 1974 law establishing public financing for presidential campaigns, setting limits on contributions to all federal candidates and requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.

 

Common Cause has also led efforts to end secrecy in government through passage of freedom of information, open meetings, and other "sunshine laws;" establish tough ethics standards for elected officials; enact strict lobbyist disclosure requirements and limit the practice of elected officials accepting lavish gifts from special interests. Common Cause worked with other advocates in Congress to end funding for the Vietnam War, cut funding for expensive weapons systems, and shape outcomes on important civil rights issues.

 

Highlights of Common Cause's Accomplishments:

 

  • 1971 - Helps pass the 26th Amendment, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.

  • 1974 - Helps lobby Congress to end funding for the Vietnam War.

  • 1974 - Leads efforts to pass presidential public financing, contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

  • 1974-75 - Helps pass Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and open meetings laws at federal, state and local levels.

  • 1978 - Led effort to pass the historic Ethics in Government Act of 1978, requiring financial disclosure for government officials and restricting the "revolving door" between business and government.

  • 1982 - Works to pass extension of the Voting Rights Act.

  • 1985 - After leading a major grassroots campaign against the MX missile, Common Cause plays a lead role in convincing Congress to cap at 50 the number of MX missiles, after coming close to nearly killing the program outright.

  • 1987 - Works with civil rights groups to successfully oppose the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • 1988 - Calls for the congressional ethics investigation of House Speaker James Wright (D-TX) that leads to his resignation.

  • 1989 - Successfully lobbies for passage of the Ethics in Government Act, which abolished special-interest honoraria fees for members of Congress, strengthened the congressional federal ethics laws for the executive branch and Congress, and closed the "grandfather clause" loophole used by senior members of Congress to convert campaign funds to personal use upon retiring.

  • 1990 - Works to help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, guaranteeing civil rights for the disabled.

  • 1995 - Calls for outside counsel to investigate House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), prompting an ethics investigation that ended in his resignation and a $300,000 fine.

  • 1995 - Works with civil rights and voting rights groups to pass the Motor Voter Act, easing registration barriers for voters.

  • 1995 - Lobbies for limits on gifts in the House and Senate and for passage of the Lobby Reform Act, providing disclosure of lobbyists' activity and spending.

  • 2000 - Successfully works for legislation to unmask and require disclosure of "527" political groups.

  • 2001 - Lobbies successfully with a coalition for the Help America Vote Act, which provided funding to states for improvement of the nation's system of voting. 

  • 2002 - Leads successful multi-year campaign to enact the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, banning soft money in federal campaigns.  In 2003, in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law.

  • 2003 - Leads coalition to raise public awareness about the Federal Communication Commission's efforts deregulate media ownership. Campaign resulted in more than 2 million Americans contacting the FCC to complain about the rules change.

  • 2004 - Launches major voter mobilization and election monitoring programs for presidential election.

  • 2005 - Wins the fight against efforts to cut federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and gathers 150,000 petition signatures calling for the resignation of CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson for partisan and unethical behavior.

  • 2006 - Leads the charge against disgraced Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and fights for major ethics reform.

  • 2007 - Successfully lobbies for passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

  • 2008 - Leads successful campaign to create the first-ever independent ethics commission in the US House of Representatives.

  • 2010 - Spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that lifted the decades-old ban on corporate and union spending round elections, Common Cause redoubles efforts to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow candidates to run competitive campaigns on small donations and fair elections funds.

 

Common Cause in the States

 

Shortly after Common Cause was formed as a Washington, DC-based national organization focused on federal issues, groups of Common Cause activists concerned about the lack of openness and accountability in state government began to form around the country. On their initiative, these groups approached the national office of Common Cause about becoming state affiliates, and our first state organizations were born.

 

Today, Common Cause has 35 state organizations. The outstanding lobbying, grassroots organizing, policy research, and media outreach of these groups have had a hand in crafting many of the important state-level political reform laws on the books. At the state level, our organizations continue to be leaders in campaign finance reform and in holding our state and local governments accountable.

 

Highlights of Common Cause accomplishments at the state and local level:

 

  • Passed Government in the Sunshine and Open meetings laws throughout the nation, requiring that the people’s business be conducted in public.  The first sunshine law was passed in Colorado in 1972.

  • Led successful efforts to pass groundbreaking campaign finance reforms, including the first disclosure laws, contribution limits and public financing in states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan, Kentucky and Florida.

  • In recent years, passed key campaign finance reforms in Colorado, New Mexico, and North Carolina and defended reforms in many states, including Arizona and Nebraska.

  • Helped pass the new Open Public Records Act in New Jersey.

  • Works for home rule and representation in Congress for citizens of the District of Columbia.

  • CC/Rhode Island passed two significant reforms in 1994, including a legislative modernization proposal and a measure that established a system of merit selection for all state judges.

  • Established a tough ethics in government codes in many states, including California, Maryland, and Wisconsin and in cities such as Atlanta, GA, and Denver, CO.

  • Replaced the old party-boss system for nominating candidates in Connecticut with direct primaries.

  • In 1999, Common Cause/New York won passage of a public financing system in New York City considered one of the most successful reforms in the nation.

  • CC/Connecticut successfully pushed for the nation’s first clean elections/public financing law passed by a legislature (others passed by ballot initiative) in 2006.  CC/CT also led the successful effort to pass the first state-level ban on “soft money.”

  • Passed an historic reform of Rhode Island state government, ending legislative domination, in 2004.

  • In California, Common Cause passed campaign finance reform ordinances in Sacramento (2001) and in Sonoma County (2001) and in Kern County (2002). Also in 2002, Common Cause members in San Francisco played a key role in passage of an Instant Run-off Voting.

  • CC/New Mexico and allies worked in the state legislature to pass a law that provides public funding to the state’s powerful Public Regulation Commission.

  • CC/North Carolina was an integral part of an effort that led to the 2002 passage of the Judicial Reform Act in North Carolina. The new law provides full public financing in the general election for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates.

  • In 2003, CC/Illinois helps win passage of Illinois Ethics Act, one of the most comprehensive ethics laws in the country.

  • In 1988, CC/Colorado passed by ballot initiative GAVEL (Give A Vote to Every Legislator) Amendment prevents the arbitrary pocketing of bills by committee chairs, the killing of bills in the House Rules Committee and the practice of the binding caucus prior to full floor debate

  • In California, established one of the most effective campaign finance disclosure systems in the country.

  • In Washington State, the financial disclosure system that CC/Washington fought for was named the best in the nation by the Center for Public Integrity.

  • In 2008, California Common Cause leads the successful effort to pass Prop 11, which creates an independent redistricting process.

  • Common Cause's "Protect the Vote" effort in 10 battleground states helps prevent a major voting meltdown in November 2008.