Real campaign reform
"What we have is two important values in conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy. You can't have both." Those chilling words came from Rep. Dick Gephardt, the likely top challenger to Vice President Gore for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, in an interview with Time. Look at the bright side. In contrast to the usual false choices our leaders offer us, here is a real one: It's either free speech or "clean" campaigns. President Clinton's designated hitters on campaign finance reform also are being honest. Appearing on the March 23 Meet the Press, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker argued, as an AP report summarized, "Congress shouldn't use claims of free speech problems as an excuse to reject limits on political spending." Or as Mrs. Baker bluntly put it, "It may be [that's] what's going to be necessary. . . to draft the best legislation possible." She was referring to the near certainty of First Amendment lawsuits if campaign finance "reform" is enacted. The president supports the McCain-Feingold bill, which is breathtaking in scope: The cost of Senate races "shall not exceed the lesser of $5,500,000, or the greater of $950,000 or $400,000 plus 30 cents multiplied by the voting age population not in excess of 4,000,000 and 25 cents multiplied by the voting age population in excess of 4,000,000." Got that? But wait. One other exception: If there is only one licensed VHF television station in the state, 80 cents should be substituted for 30 and 70 cents substituted for 25, respectively. McCain-Feingold bans soft money, requires free television (the formula is no simpler than that outlined above), and restricts out-of-state contributions. This, we are told, will help "take money out of politics." Former Delaware Gov. Pete duPont, 1988 GOP candidate for president, proposes instead of more tortuous regulations full disclosure. In a commentary on his IntellectualCapital World Wide Web site, Mr. duPont suggests: "[R]equire every campaign contribution . . . to be reported daily to the Federal Election Commission by electronic means. If President Clinton's campaign wants to take $50,000 from John Huang, it can. . . . But it will be reported in the morning paper. And the people will decide if it is wrong." Or how about simply restricting the government's ability to manipulate the tax code, transfer wealth, or otherwise give away millions of dollars of tax-funded goodies? This is different, by the way, from a pro-life PAC lobbying against abortion, or even giving money to the campaign of a pro-life politician. There, a quid pro quo is justifiable. There's no money at stake. What is wrong is giving money with the expectation of a financial return. Here's our simple campaign finance reform: If nothing's for sale, there will be be no buyers.
Two political fat cats testified March 26 before a Washington grand jury about a campaign contribution that never took place. Justice Department prosecutors nevertheless want to know whether former White House aide Harold Ickes conspired to break federal election law by diverting a political donation into a tax-exempt organization--a more serious charge than what has wounded House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The two--Florida exporter R. Warren Meddoff and Texas bond collector William R. Morgan--answered 3-1/2 hours of questions about a series of events days before the 1996 elections. On Oct. 22, Mr. Meddoff at a fundraising event handed President Clinton a business card with a note scribbled on the back: "My associate has $5 million he wants to contribute to your campaign." The associate, Mr. Morgan, in fact was only willing to contribute to nonprofit organizations friendly to the Democratic National Committee, so he could take the write-off. On Oct. 31, from his White House office, Mr. Ickes faxed a two-page memo to Mr. Meddoff specifically instructing him to have Mr. Morgan wire $500,000 to a DNC account and to spread the rest over three tax-exempt organizations. One of those was Vote Now '96, an organization now under investigation by the FBI for doing political work for the Democrats. The group engaged in voter turn-out efforts in largely Democratic neighborhoods; Newsweek reported Vote Now officials will soon receive Justice Department subpoenas. Neither Mr. Meddoff nor Mr. Morgan showed Mr. Ickes the money. Shortly after sending the fax, Mr. Meddoff alleges, Mr. Ickes instructed him to "shred" it. Mr. Ickes denies this, but acknowledges he may have told Mr. Meddoff the memo was "inoperative." DNC $14.4 million in debt. Inoperative will be the operative word for the Democratic National Committee if the party doesn't get some cash fast. In addition to the estimated $14 million debt, the party expects to spend about $4 million more in legal bills this year to fight various campaign-finance probes. On top of that is the $1.5 million in improper contributions the DNC has promised to return but hasn't.
Washington in brief
Joint committee to probe possible IRS abuse. For the first time since Watergate, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation will investigate allegations that the Internal Revenue Service has been conducting politically motivated audits. Ranking Republicans and Democrats from House and Senate committees responsible for writing tax laws ordered the special panel March 24 to look into reports that the IRS has targeted conservative nonprofits. Helms eases opposition to chemical weapons pact. Strolling hand-in-hand on the campus of his alma mater with America's top diplomat, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms indicated March 25 that he will allow a vote on a key foreign-relations priority of the Clinton administration, the international chemical weapons treaty. Sen. Helms warmly hosted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at Wingate University in North Carolina, where he had invited her to speak. Speaking to reporters, Mr. Helms insisted the treaty was "overrated," but said after negotiations over "21 different issues" with the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, he would no longer block a vote. The previous weekend, U.S. ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson said Vice President Gore had indicated the administration was close to accepting Sen. Helms's demand that several State Department agencies be consolidated and restructured. President urges stiffer penalties for Medicare/Medicaid cheats. As the Medicare trust fund staggers toward red ink, Republicans ridiculed the president's March 25 announcement of legislation to crack down on fraud as a $1 billion drop of savings from what is expected to be a $60 billion bucket. GOP leaders are still angry over the president's failure to deal with the spiraling costs of the government's top two entitlement medical programs by reducing the overstated inflation index that automatically drives up benefits. The president's proposal would allow the health secretary to keep convicted felons out of the Medicare and Medicaid programs; it would also require owners of health care businesses to supply their Social Security numbers so that those who submit fraudulent claims can be tracked state-to-state.
Rendezvous with death
After packing their bags for what they believed would be a rendezvous with a UFO, 39 members of a cult of computer programmers systematically killed themselves at a swank estate in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Most of the dead--found on cots and bunk beds, their faces covered with purple shrouds--had pieces of paper containing a recipe for a death-inducing mixture of drugs and vodka. Investigators said the victims--21 women and 18 men ranging in age from 20 to 72--apparently died in shifts over a period of several days. The 39 belonged to a group called Heaven's Gate and subscribed to a peculiar theological mix of science fiction, New Age spirituality, pseudo-Christianity, and computer-related technospeak. Material posted on the group's Internet Web site claimed their leader, discovered among the dead, was a space alien who had come to earth as Jesus 2,000 years ago and had returned to help group members shed their earthly "containers" and "graduat[e]" to a "higher level." Their deaths, they apparently believed, would transport them to a much-anticipated rendezvous with a UFO trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
As pro-lifers on Capitol Hill work to garner enough Senate votes to override President Clinton's promised second veto of a ban on partial-birth abortion, pro-lifers in the heartland continue to win victories on the issue. Georgia and Arkansas became the latest states to outlaw the procedure. In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union, representing two abortionists and three clinics, filed suit to block that state's partial-birth abortion ban. A ban in Ohio already has been struck down as unconstitutional.
Rule of law?
The heavy hand of Washington pressed down on the state of Texas in the form of a financial threat from the Department of Education. Despite a federal court ruling last year that outlawed race-based admissions preferences in the state's university system, the education department's Office of Civil Rights said Texas must continue such preferences or risk losing half-a-billion dollars in federal aid. Federal officials contend the court ruling does not apply to race-based preferences in general, but only to the particular policy against which the court ruled.
Change of plea
The founder of the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy, facing an 82-count indictment for allegedly defrauding hundreds of Christian, charitable, and cultural groups, dropped his plea of innocence and pleaded no contest March 26 in federal court in Philadelphia. John Bennett, Jr. likely will face a prison term of 10 to 30 years and a fine of $250,000. The Foundation collapsed in 1995, creating some $135 million in losses for many Christian ministries, colleges, and charities. Mr. Bennett's attorneys had planned to argue that he was motivated not by greed, but by an "unchecked religious fervor" that caused him to rationalize his actions as serving a higher purpose. But when a judge restricted the use of that defense, Mr. Bennett decided to enter a no-contest plea. The plea could be withdrawn if the U.S. Court of Appeals rules the judge acted improperly in restricting use of the "religious fervor" defense.
Stone-throwing Palestinians clashed daily with Israeli troops in protest over construction of a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the place Palestinians say should be their capital city. Meanwhile, members of the Israeli cabinet--echoing a charge made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--claimed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while talking peace, had given "a green light" for renewed terrorist attacks against Israel, including the March 21 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed three Israeli women. Nine months after the suicide bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia, Canadian intelligence arrested a Saudi dissident allegedly involved in planning the bombing. The man reportedly is connected to a branch of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.
Death to euthanasia
Australian federal lawmakers killed the world's first pro-assisted suicide law, overruling a Northern Territory statute that took effect last summer. Four people committed suicide under the law, using a computer-controlled machine that injected a deadly drug. Under Australia's constitution, the national Parliament has the right to strike down territorial and state legislation.
In Zaire, the nation's leaders agreed to face-to-face negotiations with rebels who have captured much of the country during a 5-1/2 month civil war. The rebels are trying to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko, a brutal dictator who has ruled Zaire for three decades.
In the dragon's lair
Vice President Gore's five days in China was the highest-level official U.S. visit since the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Mr. Gore and Chinese Premier Li Peng, the man who ordered the Tiananmen massacre, stood shoulder to shoulder, happily witnessing the signings of two big money deals with American companies: a $685 million order for five Boeing 777-200 jets and a $1.3 billion joint venture with General Motors to produce 100,000 Buicks a year in China. Moments later, Mr. Li called for a toast to the agreements. Mr. Gore reluctantly agreed, apparently unhappy about having his photo snapped sloshing champagne with the man known as "the butcher of Beijing"--especially in the wake of allegations that China's communist government illegally tried to influence U.S. elections and may have funneled money into the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Mr. Gore said little in public about China's widespread human rights violations, which include forced abortion and use of slave labor, but claimed that in private talks he received "a more receptive response" on human rights issues than in previous discussions with the Chinese.