Common Cause: Regaining Access to Power

COMMON Cause, the newly-created people's lobby, exercises unique new methods for precipitating governmental change: a mixture of political guerrilla warfare by the membership and frontal assault by lobbyists in Washington. This combination of savvy political lobbyists working directly on Capitol Hill, and a large membership pressuring their individual Representatives and Senators has proven an extremely effective method of promoting change. John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, believes that there is no more effective means of making a politician act responsibly than by letting him feel that he is being watched.

Gardner is a strong believer in the effectiveness of a citizens lobby: "One of the questions I get asked is where's your clout? You can't buy Congressmen, what are you going to do? The most important thing that we can do is what you might call citizen monitoring. It is really true that public officials who are under supervision behave differently than those who are not. It is a very powerful influence on public officials to know that they are under observation."

According to Gardner, the impact of citizen action has not been adequately appreciated: "I think that typically the academic world has enormously underrated the hard-hitting impact of citizen movements. If you look at the history of citizens' movements you see some very hard realities. The peace movement is a political reality. The civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the abolition of child labor, these movements have great vitality. These modes of reform are not adequately treated. But you think how long it would have taken for the civil rights movement to spring from the heart of the bureaucracy, or for that matter from the two parties. It sprang from a citizens' movement. Citizens' movements are little understood and little appreciated."

Gardner believes that his organization must focus on things that have a definable end point. He realizes that there have been too many causes which have established vague platforms which are easily ignored by those in power. Gardner stresses that it is particularly the issues of structure and process that until now have not had a constituency. "Anybody can organize a group to speak out against hunger," Gardner said. "Common Cause is trying to get the point across, clearly and emphatically, that questions of hunger won't be solved as long as a septuagenarian Texan named W. A. Poage, who is more concerned with subsidizing farmers than with feeding children, is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. We Americans have woven a tight web of institutions that imprison us, limit our decision and scope. To imagine that enlightened conversation will change things is just wrong. You must administer a jolt."

"One of the things that I think is terribly important in the concept of this organization," he emphasizes, "is that it is an organization to fight specific battles. Battles that will be settled on a specifiable date, and won or lost and you go on to the next one. But you don't sit around taking positions and then kind of vaguely educating people to a better attitude. You've got a scoreboard, you know whether you've won or lost. It's a marvelous way to focus your energies."

As a philosopher turned activist, Gardner stated the basis for his change of heart. "We've got to get back into some sort of command of our situation. Individual Americans have to get back into command of their institutions again; this means access, this means responsiveness. These are great abstractions, but if you asked what is behind them you sooner or later come down to very specific log jams like seniority. You discover that over the years in every one of these institutions, people almost unconsciously have designed barricades to prevent access. They like the insiders game which makes it very difficult for outsiders to have any access to decision and power. And if you are going to fight, you are first going to have to fight specific issues. It comes down to the fact that campaign spending practices limit the access of the average citizen, and immensely increase the access of money to power. The seniority system gravely limits the access of a young congressman to power, and enormously enhances the power of the old Southern block."

THE Ninety-Second Congress has become the first in 60 years to reform, even slightly, the rigid seniority system, which concentrates power in the hands of aged, rural, Southern, often arch-conservative members. Common Cause deserves much of the credit for the small victory. Gardner picked the seniority system as one of his targets because he believes that a highly visible evil is less dangerous than an invisible one. The seniority system in Congress is very powerful in an invisible way.

When Common Cause went to work on the seniority system, its St. Louis members wired Representative Richard Ichord (D.Mo.), asking him to state his position. Ichord, in response, wrote Gardner that the request was "very impertinent and insolent questioning." Gardner replied, "The desire of a citizen to know where his representative stands has not traditionally called insolence or impertinence. It has been called democracy." Almost overnight, Common Cause membership in St. Louis jumped from 400 to 1400. This suggests that one good way to make allies is to make the right enemies, and that people will respond to leadership that eschews generalities in favor of concrete specifics.

The preoccupation with processes which has caused Mr. Gardner to create a "third force" outside the traditional electoral system is reflected in two of Common Cause's current programs-reform of voting rights and campaign spending. The most effective access a citizen has to the political process is his right to vote. The inability of a citizen to vote because of archaic registration laws and practices is an intolerable denial of fundamental rights. Voting registration laws in many states make it extremely difficult to qualify to vote, particularly if one is poor, uneducated, or new to the state. Residency requirements alone prevent millions of transient Americans from voting. Common Causes' voting rights division, headed by Mrs. Ann Wexler, a veteran of the McCarthy and Duffey campaigns, is concentrating on changes in state laws on residency requirements, closing dates for registration and full voting rights for 18-year-olds.

Common Cause is also working to reform campaign spending laws. Gardner filed suit early in February against the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee and the Conservative Party of New York, in an attempt to close loopholes enabling parties to receive large amounts of money, which allow political costs to soar and fraudulent practices to occur. "Political spending has gotten out of hand," said Gardner. "We have moved perilously close to the time when no American will be able to run for federal office unless he is wealthy or willing to put himself under obligation to sources of wealth."

In addition to those two "organizational" programs, Common Cause played a significant role in the defeat of the SST and is now actively lobbying for total withdrawal from Vietnam by December 31, 1971.

AT A press conference last fall, Gardner rocked the establishment by stating: "Most parts of the system have grown so rigid that they cannot respond to impending disaster. They are so ill-designed for contemporary purposes that they waste taxpayer's money, mangle good programs and frustrate every good man who enters the system." Strong words for a 58-year-old registered Republican who was once labeled by a New York Times reporter as the "prince of the establishment."

Eight months ago, Gardner's concern for the failings of our governmental system led him to the creation of Common Cause, which is designed to bypass partisan politics in order to deal directly with what he describes as a "system which is incapable of changing itself from within."

Gardner is apparently not alone in his beliefs, as demonstrated by over 150,000 Americans who have sent Common Cause their 15 dollars to be part of this unique new movement for political reform.

What led Gardner to the creation of Common Cause? "First," he said, "it was a transition from a very deep, consuming belief in the importance of education." Gardner comes from an academic background, and has not always preferred political action to enlightened conversation. He holds an A. B. and an M. A. from Stanford and a Ph. D. in psychology from the University of California. "I was an educator for many years," he said, "reading and writing and trying to communicate and to work with the educational system. I started out as the most academic of academics-the kind of faculty member who never even bothers to attend faculty meetings."