Who Cares About Campaign Finance Reform?
It was a little after noon when reporters began to form a line outside a Kinko's Copy shop in Washington, D.C. For days, the media had been waiting for the White House to release more than 1,500 pages of documents from the files of ousted chief of staff Harold Ickes. And on a sunny March morning last spring, the executive branch was prepared to comply with press requests.Reporters believed the files of the man deemed the unofficial campaign manager of Clinton/Gore '96 might offer some insight into how the president's re-election effort was financed. And the media were right. After paying more than $400 for copies of the Ickes papers, they seized upon information contained in page one of the documents, which made front page news across the nation.It was a 1995 memo to President Clinton from Ickes and Democratic fund-raising wizard Terry McAuliffe. It detailed ways by which the campaign could raise money for the campaign. Two of the three suggestions were to energize major party donors by offering presidential coffees and overnight stays in the White House."Yes, pursue all three, and promptly," Clinton had written on the memo."Ready to start overnights right away."The release of the memo marked one of the first times news of potential campaign finance violations had strayed beyond the Beltway and penetrated mainstream America.Days later, the phrase "the selling of the White House" was being used by everyone from NBC-TV anchor Tom Brokaw to syndicated radio personality Howard Stern. One hotel advertisement in the Washington Post poked fun at the whole scandal, asking why anyone would want to pay $50,000 for a night in the Lincoln Bedroom when its daily rate was only $36.99.The White House sleep-overs were just another stepping stone in a large list of questionable practices by Clinton and his closest advisers for the 1996 re-election effort.For months, two Congressional committees and the U.S. Justice Department have been investigating allegations of foreign money contributions to both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. But as U.S. Senate hearings over the campaign finance scandal began earlier this month, public outrage voiced in recent months over such scandals had quieted considerably.Bill Schneider, a political analyst for the Cable News Network, believes the silence can be attributed to a rising cynicism of Washington politicians and the lack of any new information produced by the hearings. He said in the minds of most Americans, the most memorable part of the scandal so far has been what some term the "renting" of the Lincoln Bedroom."The hearings are covering things that, for the most part, have already been addressed in the public, and for the press, no new news means no coverage," Schneider said.But campaign reform groups such as Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics believe the public's indifference about corruption in fund-raising can be blamed on the complexities of the system. They believe nobody really understands Federal Election Commission regulations or the loopholes politicians have used over the years to funnel enormous amounts of money into their campaigns.With so many unfamiliar names such as John Huang, Johnny Chung, Charlie Trie and the Riady family combined with allegations that the Chinese government may have tried to influence the policies of the United States, reformers say the public is confused."Despite conventional wisdom, the public does care, but there is a sense that the system will never be fixed by the people it serves," said Paul Hendrie of the Center for Responsive Politics.Scant coverage of the hearings by major news networks, combined with a lack of public understanding about what is now perceived to be an old issue, has led some observers to question if politicians can ever be forced to end their enslavement to money and the special interests behind it.Perhaps the first sign that the campaign fund-raising hearings were boring national viewers came just a few hours after proceedings began. In the middle of opening statements by the 16 members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the "bipartisanism" preached by both Democrats and Republicans was beginning to fade, and spats were breaking out along party lines.Then, two hours into the first session, MSNBC cut into the proceedings with breaking news. The network went live to Las Vegas for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Nevada Boxing Commission's hearings on the possible suspension of Mike Tyson. Thus ended the last widely available coverage of the campaign fund-raising hearings.While events such as the Presidential Summit on Volunteerism and the weekly Jon Benet Ramsey murder press briefing often prompt networks such as CNN and MSNBC to break into regular programming to carry live coverage, nothing similar has occurred when the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is in session.Even C-SPAN, the public affairs network credited with bringing the goings-on of federal government into homes around America, has not been carrying the hearings live. Richard Fahle, a spokesman for the network, said C-SPAN already has a commitment to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of action on the House and Senate floors. He said this decision has drawn some unhappy responses from viewers."We will not deviate from our decision to carry the House and Senate floors live," Fahle said."We did not deviate from that for Whitewater or the Iran-Contra hearings, and we weren't around for the Watergate hearings, but even then, we wouldn't have deviated."C-SPAN airs taped coverage of the hearings after Congress has adjourned for the day, which is sometimes near midnight.The lone network providing live coverage of the hearings has been the Fox News Channel, a network not available anywhere in Oklahoma. Owned by conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, Fox News is not even available in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.Most of the major television networks have provided minimal coverage of the proceedings, mostly devoting three-sentence stories or no news at all about the daily developments. By the second day of the hearings, ABC-TV's Forrest Sawyer, filling in for Ted Koppel on "Nightline," said the hearings were a "bust."Howard Kurtz, media writer for the Washington Post, said the scant coverage of the hearings on television has shaped what most people are thinking about the investigation."The major newspapers have been treating the hearing more seriously, with at least front-page coverage on most of the days," Kurtz said."But for a lot of Americans, if a story doesn't happen on television, it doesn't exist."The lack of coverage of the proceedings represents a stark contrast to the media storm surrounding the hearings just hours before they were called to order. Nearly every national media outlet, both print and broadcast, profiled the committee's leaders. Attention was focused on the chairman of the proceedings, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee.As one of the lead attorneys for the Republican side in the Watergate investigation, Thompson was the man who asked Nixon adviser Alexander Butterfield the question which led to the discovery of a secret White House taping system. But while Thompson gained bipartisan acclaim for his aggressive questioning of members of his own party during Watergate, it was not the senator's claim to fame.Instead, Thompson is best known for a career on the big screen. As a character actor, he has appeared in films such as "Die Hard 2" and "The Hunt for Red October." And off screen, Thompson has been one of Washington's more colorful characters, as he once was linked romantically to country music diva Lorrie Morgan.Now one of the more popular members of Congress, Thompson appeared on numerous television news shows just days before his debut as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. As one member of the media recalled, "Thompson's story was made for reporting."But two weeks into the hearings, broadcast news was rendering Thompson's investigation a failure, which some say helped White House spin doctors encourage the belief that the hearings are only producing "old news.""The hearings have become anti-climatic to some people, even if we are learning new things about the scandal everyday," Schneider said."For the hearings to make headlines, it has to involve Al Gore, the president or the first lady."Groups pushing for reform of federal elections are unhappy with the notion that the public has become bored with the scandal. They say polls prove most people do care about the huge influx of money being poured into elections.Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington-based Public Campaign, said the public's confusion about campaign finance has been misread by reporters and politicians."Americans are fed up with the campaign finance system," Miller said."They want the money chase to stop."According to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics, 75 percent of Americans are disgusted by the recent fund-raising scandals. Sixty percent said reforming the campaign finance system should be a top priority in Washington this year. But only 42 percent said they believe current office-holders could reform the system."This should be a wake-up call for elected officials who think voters don't care about this issue," said Kent Cooper, executive director of the CRP."The message is the voters do care, and they feel that their elected officials don't care enough."But even some elected officials who do care acknowledge the power money has on the political process. Currently, there are more than 15 pieces of legislation pending before Congress that propose some degree of reform for the federal election process.One of the best-known reform bills is a bipartisan measure introduced by senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc. The McCain-Feingold bill, introduced in late 1996, would ban "soft" money from campaigns and limit contributions from political action committees that represent special interests.Soft money is described by some to be the biggest loophole of the federal election process. According to the FEC, soft money includes any contributions made to a national party committee for state and local political activities benefiting the party as a whole. By law, these funds should only be used for activities such as get-out-the-vote drives or party bumper stickers.Subject to no contribution limits at all, soft money, critics say, has been used instead to raise money for politicians from those who already have contributed the maximum amount to a candidate. Soft money also comes from corporations, which are prohibited from contributing directly to a candidate.Reformers say the fact that legislation of this magnitude was even discussed in Congress is a political miracle.For months, Republicans have concentrated their complaints about illegal or unethical fund-raising on the president, but McCain has said many of his colleagues in Congress are not exactly free of sin. That admission hasn't won the reform-minded lawmaker any friends in the Capitol.McCain's proposed legislation has drawn scorn from most of his Republican counterparts, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. In fact, his introduction of the legislation reportedly ended McCain's chances of being named to the committee investigating campaign finance abuses.According to a recent article in Vanity Fair magazine, Lott was uncomfortable with McCain being on the committee because he feared he would not be able to control where the investigation would go."They don't want Thompson to go into the Congressional stuff," McCain said."It is one of the most cynical things I have ever seen."Supporters say McCain's bill is perhaps the most promising piece of campaign finance reform legislation in Congress. But most analysts doubt it will pass the Senate because of GOP opposition. As of now, Thompson is the only Republican supporter of the measure."I am under no illusions this will be an easy fight," McCain said.While the issue of campaign finance is a timely one, the reform efforts of McCain and Feingold closely resemble a fight that began in the halls of Congress more than 10 years ago. At the time, the war on money in politics was being waged by then Sen. David Boren, D-Seminole.One of the few Washington politicians who did not accept PAC donations for his campaigns, Boren, like McCain and Feingold, faced overwhelming opposition for a bill that capped spending on elections. In 1983, he co-authored legislation with Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, which called for the elimination of soft money and proposed partial public financing of campaigns.The issue soon became a crusade for Boren as reform legislation was defeated year after year by Senate Republicans, who labeled the spending caps "a violation of free speech." The bill finally passed in 1992, but President Bush vetoed it.In 1994, Boren announced he was leaving Congress to become president of the University of Oklahoma. In his final effort to see the legislation become law, Boren's bill won a majority of votes in the Senate, 52-46, but 60 votes were needed for passage.Greg Kubiak, former legislative aide to Boren, later authored a book about the campaign finance debate. "The Gilded Dome: The U.S. Senate and Campaign Finance Reform" gives an inside view of Boren's efforts to win passage of such legislation. Kubiak believes history is repeating itself now in terms of reforming the system."McCain and Feingold are against the same odds we were 10 years ago," Kubiak said."But, to a large degree, we didn't have the critical mass of public attention there is now, and we didn't have the scandal."Even without scandal, Kubiak said Boren was conscious of the declining faith people had in elected officials. The senator knew the addiction of elected officials to money was taking away from their obligation to voters."Boren knew how important something like this would be," Kubiak said."He was one of the only politicians who believed that this should be a nation whose public servants should stand on ideas and issues, instead of on mountains of cash."Many say claims of foreign money entering American campaigns is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abuses of the political process. Another allegation of abuse centers on political action committees formed by members of Congress. Reformers say various members of Congress, including Sen. Don Nickles, R-Ponca City, are exploiting loopholes in federal election laws.During the 1995-96 election cycle, Nickles took in around $1.3 million from corporate lobbyists and individual donors. He then donated half of that money to the campaigns of more than 70 other Republicans running for office around the country.Nickles was not even running for re-election. His term is not up until 1998. Instead, the money was funneled through two different funds -- his own election fund and his leadership political action committee called the Republican Majority Fund.The senior member of Oklahoma's delegation is just one of dozens of members of Congress who have set up leadership PACs, which critics claim exploit FEC limits on how much special interest lobbyists may donate to individual candidates.According to FEC regulations, $10,000 per election is the limit on what PACs may donate to a candidate. Critics claim corporate PACs bypass that regulation by donating to leadership PACs, which then donate those funds to the candidate of the donor's choice."Congress has gotten so brazen about their leadership PACs that it has become numbing," Cooper said.Reformers say leadership PACs are just one area of the campaign finance puzzle that may never be investigated by the federal government. They say Congress consistently shuns the spotlight on any of its own fund-raising practices, which means the majority of abuses are never publicized."It is hard to imagine Congress will muster the will to get rid of this stuff," said Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity."These are the politicians that are perpetrating the loopholes and the abuses, and they don't want to get rid of a system that serves them."Nickles declined to comment for this story. In a statement available on his web site, the senator calls for an overhaul of the way campaigns are managed, but says proposals calling for public financing or limiting campaign spending do not hold "constitutional muster.""There are better uses for limited federal dollars than creating a politician's entitlement program," Nickles said.Nickles believes portions of the McCain-Feingold Bill would violate First Amendment rights as determined by the Supreme Court."Over the years, the High Court has ruled that limits on campaign spending are limits on free speech," he said.But Nickles, like other members of Congress, continues to avoid questions of how lawmakers should reform their own campaigns. And as a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Nickles has been quick to point fingers at the Clinton administration when it comes to fund-raising abuses.But Democrats say Nickles' criticism is hypocritical. Last spring, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, released a letter written by Nickles in 1991 inviting supporters of the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle to a fund-raiser at then-Vice President Dan Quayle's home. The ticket price was $10,000 per guest and allowed donors to mingle with top GOP leaders.Campaign reform activists say Nickles' invitation and the Clinton memos show fund-raising abuses cut across party lines."Both parties break the rules," said Bill Davis of Common Cause."Money is dominating the system, and, too often, the special interests are given more attention than the everyday common citizen."In Washington, D.C., campaign finance reform and the scandals that threaten to darken the White House and Congress are routinely discussed by just about everyone. But in Oklahoma, and elsewhere outside the Beltway, talk of the corrupting influence money has on politics is far from a hot topic.Jim Botkin of the state chapter of Common Cause said there is interest in Oklahoma in campaign finance reform, but many voters still do not understand what the scandals mean."Once you get people's attention, they will sign a petition for reform, but mostly, people are not thinking about the issue," Botkin said.Even with coverage of the hearings remaining scarce and many members of the media insisting the public doesn't care about fund-raising abuses, reformers hope the Senate investigation results in some momentum toward revamping the system."Maybe there has been no new information at the hearings so far, but that doesn't take away from the importance of the issue," Botkin said."The only thing that is going to change the system is people getting mad about money having more power than votes."