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CongressLine - Overtaken by Events

By Carol M. Morrissey, Published on February 17, 1997

The last major overhaul of our campaign finance laws occurred 22 years ago in the aftermath of Watergate. The scandals that have surfaced since the 1996 election, of which it seems we have only scratched the surface, sully Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no doubt that the campaign finance system is ripe for reform and has been for some time.

In fact, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) have sponsored bipartisan legislation which would do just that - abolish political action committees, terminate unlimited donations to political parties and supply free television advertising and other perks to candidates in exchange for caps on campaign spending. (see Sen. Feingold's site for the text of the speeches he and Sen. McCain gave on their bill before the National Press Club at http:// www.senate.gov/~feingold/) The legislation, S. 25, has not received a very warm welcome from the Republican leadership, since it targets the main source of Republican fund-raising, unlimited contributions from corporations and the wealthy.

The Republican leadership is wholeheartedly supporting, however, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) and their upcoming Congressional investigations into campaign finance irregularities. Sen. Thompson and Rep. Burton are the Chairmen of, respectively, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which are spearheading the investigations.(The two committee homepages can be found at http://www.house.gov/reform/ and http://www.senate.gov/committee/governmental_affairs.html).

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee issued a joint statement at the end of January outlining the scope of their investigation. According to the statement, the Committee intends to focus on whether foreign contributions affected any U.S. policies or national security decisions, possible conflicts of interest involving federal officials, the mingling of fund-raising with official government business and improprieties involving tax-exempt organizations, corporations and unions. The Committee will also evaluate the existing laws and regulations governing the issues delineated above. The investigation will involve political donors from 11 countries and the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Sen Thompson has requested a budget of $6.5 million to pursue these objectives.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Thompson's budget request has raised partisan ire. Democrats are distressed over the money and the seemingly unfettered scope and duration of the investigation. They are highly concerned that the probe will focus entirely on Democratic fund-raising and the White House, overlooking the GOP. It could also potentially carry over into 1998 and taint the midterm elections.

Republicans, on the other hand, do not want the real focus of their investigation eclipsed by all of the peripheral issues being brought up by the Democrats. Nor do they want the investigation to terminate before all of the issues have been fully addressed. Besides, why should the Democrats object to the requested budget when they are the one's calling for a broader investigation, thus taxing the already strained resources of the Committee!

One of the latest reports to come out of the Hill is that Sen. Thompson has lowered his request to $5.7 million, but that the Democrats are still closer to $1.8 million in funding for the Committee. Rep. Burton definitely plans to hold House hearings, but has not yet elaborated as to their focus.

With all of the partisan bickering and comparisons to Watergate that have been tossed around recently, is campaign finance OBE? We know that the true issue here is reform of our dinosaur of a fund-raising, campaign finance system. What remains to be seen is whether our politicians will utilize this opportunity to seize the day and reform that system or will choose to wallow in rhetoric instead.

Please visit the following related sites if you wish to stay abreast of the investigations:

For campaign finance reform information, see the following sites, which are sure to be following it closely: