Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 26 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       The scene in the hearing room today was like the morning after a big party. Last night it was jammed to capacity with 130 journalists. Every senator was in his seat and the chamber buzzed with newsy excitement. This morning the 20 or so reporters who showed up doodled listlessly in their notepads or read the paper. By lunchtime, most of the committee's members had gone home for the weekend.
       They didn't miss much. Democrats called two witnesses of negligible interest. The first was a district attorney from Boston who successfully prosecuted Simon Fireman. Fireman, you may remember, was the Massachusetts businessman who laundered $130,000 for Bob Dole's 1996 campaign by reimbursing his employees for $1,000 individual contributions. Fireman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months of home confinement. Unfortunately for the Democrats, there's no larger significance to this episode. Everyone agrees that the Dole people didn't know about the scheme. The only point worth making about it was the one Sen. Lieberman made. Fireman could have made his contribution with perfect legality by writing a "soft money" check to the Republican National Committee. He seems to have gone out of his way to break the law for inexplicable reasons.
       The other witness was Richard Richards, who helped arrange Ambrous Young's ill-fated $2.1 million loan guarantee to the National Policy Forum. Richards said that in the summer of 1994, Barbour wanted Young's money urgently so that he could spend it on marginal House races. Barbour spent most of yesterday evening indignantly claiming that the money wasn't needed for--and wasn't used for--the 1994 campaign. Richards also testified that he told Barbour the money for the loan guarantee was coming in from abroad. This means that Barbour, who swears he didn't know the funds were from Hong Kong, was informed of that fact no less than five times.
       It's interesting to know whether Haley Barbour lied under oath, but why does it really matter? It matters because it goes to the heart of what the hearings were really about this week--whether Republicans are as bad as Democrats when it comes to fund raising. The question which is always present implicitly in these hearings, when it isn't being debated explicitly, is whether GOP misdeeds are morally or legally equivalent to Democrat ones. In short: does everybody do it? Democrats tried to use Barbour to support their case that both parties do it, when "it" is foreign fund raising. In summing up the week's testimony, John Glenn said the Democrats had demonstrated that Republicans were deeply involved in the raising of foreign money. Thus, he contended, what the committee was investigating was clearly a bipartisan scandal. Glenn said that this substantiated his larger point that what the country really needs is comprehensive campaign-finance reform.
       Most of the Republicans on the committee argued precisely the opposite: What Barbour did was not tantamount to what John Huang did. Indeed, Barbour made this pitch himself. "Everybody doesn't do it," he asserted, in his forceful opening statement. The Democratic campaign of 1996, Republicans contend, was exceptional in its sliminess. The committee's job, they think, is to unearth Democratic violations so that they can be punished and deterred in future. There is no larger implication to it. Lawbreaking by a few individuals does not prove that there is something wrong with the law.
       Thompson agrees with his Republican colleagues that the Democrats are the bigger scoundrels--and if we're only talking about the election of 1996, which is what his committee is tasked with investigating, he's pretty clearly right. The Clinton campaign sought out and exploited loopholes in the campaign law with a vengeance that was not matched by the Dole campaign. But Thompson parts from his Republican brethren, and agrees with his sparring partner Glenn, on the larger point. The system, Thompson believes, is flawed. His ultimate objective, he reminded everyone in an eloquent concluding statement this afternoon, is to make a case for fundamental campaign-finance reform, beginning with the McCain-Feingold bill, which he supports. Thompson warned that the kind of partisanship exhibited recently on the committee would undermine its chances. "What concerns me is our attitude toward one another," he said. " I would hope that as we go forward we could try to do it together. ... If we're at each other all the time, we'll never find out any facts, and we'll never have any reform."
       Thompson is right, but he's stuck in a box. To develop support for campaign-finance reform, he needs a scandal that can do what it has not yet done--generate genuine national outrage. But the only thing that will make the country sit up and pay attention is the revelation of serious lawbreaking. And if the scandal is about lawbreaking, it won't make the case Thompson wants it to make for reform. The more criminality his scandal reveals, the more Thompson's Republican colleagues will argue that the problem isn't the system, but rather those Democrats who neglected to operate within its strictures.
       This sets up an almost impossible task. In the coming months, Fred Thompson must convince the nation that what happened in 1996 was outrageous and extraordinary. Then he has to convince us all that it was outrageous and merely typical.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.