This Week

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

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.

High finance

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.

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