Commentary: Campaign Money: Now Everybody Is In A Glass House

On Feb. 27, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took a break from bashing President Clinton's fund-raising foibles to sign a letter. For just $5,000, the senator wrote, business executives could join the Presidential Roundtable, one of many organizations that the GOP has created to raise money for Senate candidates.

What would donors get for their $5,000? Lott couldn't sell a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, but he could offer access to powerful pols: "Our Spring Forum [will] give you plenty of opportunity to share your personal ideas with some of our top Republican leaders." And, Lott warned, "by failing to act today, you could lose a unique chance to be included in current legislative policy debates that will affect for many years to come."

That pitch explains why the Senate Republican leader and scores of lawmakers in both parties remain implacable foes of campaign-finance reform. Nearly every day, some Democratic or Republican campaign committee grinds out fund-raising appeals similar to Lott's. The sleazy money chase never ends--in Congress or the White House. And while the Democrats have polished their skills lately, the GOP still raised nearly $20 million more in party money in 1996.

LAST-MINUTE REVERSAL. For a while, it looked as if Lott & Co. would have it both ways. They could express outrage at White House fund-raising abuses while opposing meaningful reforms. However, that all changed on Mar. 11. Republicans had generated so much heat over Clinton's money grab that they could no longer limit the congressional campaign-finance probe. Polls show that the public is just as disgusted with the GOP's role in the shameful system. So, hours before the Senate was to vote for a tightly focused--and partisan--inquiry into White House practices, Republican lawmakers gave in to demands for a look at the whole mess.

Is this one of those rare Capraesque moments when the voice of the little guy gets through to Washington? It could be. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) now has broad latitude to hold hearings that could give the public a glimpse of how pervasive the money madness is. And this investigation could turn up the heat for serious reform. That's the last thing Lott and his allies want. But it is exactly what is needed. The hearings would "pull back the curtain on all these questionable practices," says Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects at the nonpartisan Center for Public


Until the last-minute reversal, Lott had tried to limit Thompson's investigation to just illegal activities. Under those ground rules, little of what outrages the public would ever have gotten a full airing. Clinton's now-infamous White House coffees and Vice-President Al Gore's phone-a-thon were probably legal. So are solicitations such as the ones Lott sent out last month.

LEGAL SLEAZE. However, just because it's legal, it isn't necessarily good government. The most egregious of the legally permissible abuses revolve around the "soft money" that helps politicians skirt the limits on campaign donations. These dollars ostensibly go to political parties for general purposes--but the funds are really funneled to candidates for President and Congress. In 1996, nearly $260 million was raised in this manner, three times the amount that was collected in 1992. Says retiring Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio): "The problem is not just what politicians do that is illegal. It is what politicians do that is legal that is an equal scandal."

Now the public will get an opportunity to learn more about that real scandal: the pervasive corruption of the campaign system. Republicans will get their hearings laying bare the fund-raising practices of the Clintonites. And reformers in both parties will be able to show voters how members of Congress shake their own money trees.

Senate GOP fund-raiser-in-chief Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says that giving money is a First Amendment right, and he insists he's proud of all the big bucks he has dug up. But one wonders how boastful the senator will be when he and others who share his views are in front of the television cameras trying to explain it all away to an angry public. It'll be quite a show--one that may be the catalyst for reforms these pols hope never to see.