The closing of the Center for Governmental Studies is another setback to the dying cause of cleaning up elections and taking them out of the hands of big contributors.
Last week, Tracy Westen, CEO of the political reform think tank, and Bob Stern, the president, sent out an e-mail saying “With some sadness, but with considerable pride in our accomplishments, we are closing the Center for Governmental Studies’ offices after 28 years of service in the public interest. The recession has depleted our funding, and we cannot continue to operate CGS in its present form.“
The center, mostly financed by contributions from foundations, brought something new to the political reform movement. In addition to advocating electoral reform, the center dug into the policies that too often are shaped by campaign contributions to elected officials. It proposed major changes to a sick state budgeting system that has been heavily influenced by corporate and labor contributors as well as right wing anti tax forces. It also studied one of the great victims of these forces, California’s education system, and proposed reforms. When I retired from the Times, I was employed as a CGS consultant for two years. I worked with another journalist, Emmett Berg, on a project showing how land developers and their government allies put through land use laws weakening flood and fire protection.
“We were one of the few organizations emphasizing improving government,” Westen told me. “We were trying to fix the process we tried to figure out what were the best solutions for the public.”
The center was born during the post Watergate era, extending from the mid-‘70s to possibly the early ‘90s. Reformers were heroes then, but as my wife Nancy Boyarsky had predicted in a Los Angeles Times op ed piece in the mid-70s, the big contributors would eventually use their money and influence to figure out ways around them. The fat cats and their sharp lawyers found loopholes in reform laws. They created political campaign committees that operated outside the laws. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, giving these shadowy committees carte blanche, was a mortal blow to campaign reform. Today, contributors call the shots at every level of government, mocking an intricate web of reform laws.
This was never clearer to me than during my five-year term on the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. We commissioners nailed a few big contributors. But contributors and their lobbyists and lawyers had reached so deeply into city government that I thought our job as reformers was hopeless.
So, apparently, did the foundations that supported CGS. Steve Rountree, chairman of the CGS board, said in an e-mail obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, “In my view this is the result of the impact of the recession on foundation but, more than that, the consequence of our dramatically polarized political environment and court rulings that have tended to gut laws and regulations aimed at making the democratic process fairer. I believe that foundations have given up hope of meaningful reform in this climate.”
Westen agreed. “ As Steve said, some foundations that have supported our governance reforms may have become dispirited by court rulings and legislative gridlock, feeling not much could be accomplished through the legislative or judicial processes,” he said. “And there's some truth to that -- witness Congress and the California Legislature. But, in my view, that's just when organizations like CGS are needed.”
The CGS office was a few blocks from our house, and Nancy and I often passed it on our morning walks. Last week, it was silent and empty, a perfect symbol of the present state of campaign reform.
* Fixed misspelling of Westen's name