Fund-Raising Phone Tag

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Sept. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Fund-Raising Phone Tag

So you crossed the street to phone for cash. What happens when the donor calls back?

Nothing exposes the sham at the heart of the campaign-finance hearings like the obsession over what type of phone was used to solicit contributions. The phone rule asks not how much money was promised over the line. It asks what kind of phone was used in the solicitation. Was a cellular phone used? That's kosher. Car phone? That's OK, too. A phone in a rented room steps away from the Capitol? Still OK. In the office? Off with your head and into the arms of an independent counsel!

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Meanwhile, as the hearings made headlines, the Republicans delivered a $50-billion tax break to the tobacco industry, which just happened to have given the party $1.9 million. Don't expect congressional hearings on that giveaway while the Republicans have phone calls to prosecute.

This current phone obsession illustrates our declining standard of behavior for Washington politicians. We once imposed sanctions on them for their improprieties. Then we started punishing them for the appearance of impropriety. Today, we'll tolerate almost any outrage as long as its perpetrators maintain the appearance of propriety. Genuine propriety would still be nicer. But in its absence, we settle for politicians who abide by the rules (like the phones rules), which are devised to cloak impropriety in propriety.

Most scholars and the Congressional Research Service believe that the Pendleton Act--the law Republican senators believe prohibits office-holders from calling from federal property for donations--doesn't apply to the president and vice president. What's more, the act, which was passed only a few years after Alexander Graham Bell's invention, didn't really envision phones. The legislation was designed to keep elected officials from using the majesty of their surroundings to shake down visitors or employees. Today's potential donor doesn't know if a politician is calling from the Capitol or the car--and he doesn't much care. The ethics committees of the House and Senate have spelled out very specific rules for members to follow--one of which prohibits making or taking fund-raising calls. All this excess of zeal in using the right phones at the right time lets members of Congress pretend they're cleaning up the system without actually stemming the flow of money.

This guile over what constitutes a legal solicitation explains the existence of several hot-sheet hotels on Capitol Hill where some lawmakers go to make--and take--all their fund-raising calls. About 100 steps from the portal of the Rayburn House Office Building, on the second floor of the annex to the offices of the Republican National Committee, stands a maze of cubicles separated by padded teal-green dividers of the type you see separating the operators who take your call for the Ginsu knives. Between less pressing business--like running the country--members of Congress hunch over 3-foot wide slabs of Formica, working up a sweat dialing as many donors as they can. Like most of us, they rarely reach their prey on the first try. If they're lucky, Mr. Moneybags returns the call, but usually by that time the importuning politician is back in his Capitol office. Does he put up his feet and take the call from Moneybags when Moneybags is ready to talk? Or does he race down the stairs and cross the street to his padded cell and call his benefactor back? You be the judge.

It's absurd to think everyone uses the setup for dialing--so many members, so little space--and most members fudge when asked point-blank. Rep. Dan Burton, chairing the House investigation into finance abuses, had to equivocate when asked two weeks ago whether he hadn't indeed taken fund-raising calls in his office. "I can't say never ... many times they [potential donors] will call back at your office and therein, as Shakespeare said, 'lies the rub.' "

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A number of members have admitted that they take, and make, the calls from the Capitol. Sen. Phil Gramm (cash is a candidate's best friend) bragged in an interview about raising money from his office using a credit card. When challenged on the legality of that, he pointed out correctly that the Justice Department had never prosecuted anyone under the law, so the Ethics Committee stood down. There were calls to hold an inquiry at the time but, according to the Wall Street Journal, the matter died because Sen. Mitch McConnell adamantly opposed opening an investigation because so many other senators were probably guilty of the same thing. A former staff member of Sen. Al D'Amato's says that when a donor called, the New Yorker used to try to stretch the phone cord into the bathroom like a teen-ager trying to keep his parents from overhearing his conversation. A consultant to Sen. Don Nickles, the pit-bull questioner at Sen. Fred Thompson's hearing, says that he witnessed Nickles taking calls from potential donors in his office. Sen. Bob Smith, considering running for the Republican nomination for president, left his office number on an answering-machine message, asking for a donation. When it was reported, Smith's office said it was a one-time mistake. Political cross-consultant Dick Morris said on CNN, "Would you like me to embarrass 15 of my former clients by telling you when I sat in their office[s] and they made fund-raising phone calls?"

Congress may have agreed that calls should be made from an annex, but the executive branch never did. In the immortal words of Vice President Al Gore, there is no controlling legal authority that says elected officials can't make calls from federal property. Putting aside the fact that both he and the president live on federal property, the Congressional Research Service and a host of other legal scholars said that the law does not apply to phoning from either office.

Of course, officeholders shouldn't dial for dollars from their official digs. Not because dialing is evil, but because they shouldn't be hustling money at all. As long as members of Congress continue to divert attention from the fact that money flows in at the same rate that favors flow out, the televised "fight" over their fund-raising methodologies will allow them to pretend they're reforming the system.

Meanwhile, the Capitol is up for sale. Operators are standing by.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Time magazine.

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