Nation/World

Congress Puts System On Trial Today Hearings Likely To Find ‘Soft Money’ Is Real Villain

The televised campaign-finance hearings that will begin this morning in the Senate Caucus Room are not the second round of Watergate. They are not Iran-Contra redux. They are not the Fulbright Vietnam hearings nor the Army-McCarthy hearings nor the Truman defense-contract hearings.

At times, it will seem as if an individual or a presidential campaign or a political party is being investigated. But that’s only partly true. What’s really in the dock beginning today isn’t any politician but the system that politicians built. What’s important isn’t what one party can show about the other but what the campaign-finance system shows about our political system.

Unlike Watergate, these hearings are likely to have no smoking gun, though you’ll hear a lot about tobacco money and gun money.

Unlike Iran-Contra, these hearings are likely to have no patriotic hero-rogue like Oliver North, though you’ll see a lot of rogues who, in private meetings, once portrayed themselves as partisan heroes.

“These hearings will give us the best picture we have yet of how unseemly this fund raising can get - the kind of characters involved, the extent to which the parties actually seek out and woo these donors and the scope of funds being provided by a relatively small group of people,” said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College specialist on campaign finance.

Earlier marquee hearings were best understood through personalities - North in the riveting Iran-Contra sessions of the 1980s; John Dean, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and Charles Colson in the showcase Watergate hearings of the 1970s; and Joseph N. Welch, Roy M. Cohn, and G. David Schine in the explosive McCarthy television spectacle of the 1950s. The 1990s may be the age of personality, but the political scandal of the decade is best understood through numbers.

So the hearings that begin this morning aren’t really about John Huang and Charlie Trie or Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom but about the political loophole - unregulated “soft-money” contributions to the parties, not to the candidates - that makes them important. Soft money exploded in 1996, with Democrats raising $124 million (242 percent more than they raised in 1992) and Republicans raising $138 million (178 percent more than they raised four years earlier).

Most of this money came from wealthy individuals or corporations and labor unions that had been banned for a half-century from participating in federal elections. Most of this money came in the form of large contributions of $100,000 or more. Many of the donors gave money to both sides, in effect hedging their bets but in the meantime undermining the political influence of small donors - or, more perilous still, of individual voters.

Soft money has few supporters. Not politicians, at least not in public. (Their private views are well-known, because the figures speak for themselves.) Not the voters, either. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll taken last month shows that three out of five Americans support eliminating soft money and setting campaign-spending limits.

The hearings will, of course, have their share of colorful revelations - mostly tales of special dinners and coffees, country-club outings, overseas trips, and special access. But when the hearings are over they will be judged not by juicy revelations but by two sober calculations:

Did the hearings present such a grim portrait of the political system that the very elected officials who profited from it were spurred to action?

And, did the hearings merely contribute further to the public’s skepticism and cynicism of political figures and the system that they have constructed and protected for their own advantage?

These hearings, beginning as the nation’s attention turns to beaches and boardwalks, lakes and lobster bakes, have spawned only modest expectations, in part because of the timing, in part because these hearings cannot possibly satisfy the expectations that earlier hearings have set.

“If these hearings are into soft money, fund-raising, and providing access to large givers, that’s nothing like the kind of abuse of power you saw in Watergate,” said Michael Malbin, director of legislative and political studies at the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York in Albany.”The campaign-finance link in Watergate was using the power of the office to extort money from large givers. That’s not alleged here.”

In the age of political “spin” there are likely to be few spectacles like the spin of summer. In their effort to minimize any changes in the system, the two parties will attempt to spin viewers toward the conclusion that their rival, and not the system, is at fault.

The Republicans will probably try to lay all of the problems onto foreign contributions, arguing that the issue is not flaws with the system but illegal acts by individuals. That will put the focus on the White House, controlled by the Democrats, and not on the Congress, controlled by Republicans. In truth, foreign contributions account for far less than 5 percent of the total unregulated money given to both parties.

For their part, Democrats will probably try to rally around spending levels, pressing to limit contributions as a way of keeping special-interest money flowing but restricting how much can be raised, knowing that Republicans routinely attract more money than Democrats.

The closest thing to an unspoiled view that official Washington possesses right now is the cadre of newly elected members of Congress, who have been incumbents for only six months and who were the most recent outsiders. For five months, a bipartisan group of freshmen House members has been working on a proposal to overhaul campaign finance law, a plan that includes a ban on soft money, indexed contribution limits, and some additional disclosure requirements. Though the GOP leadership has asked Republicans to discontinue its effort with Democrats, new House members of both parties share what Democratic Representative Tom Allen of Maine calls “the experience of feeling almost like bystanders in our own races.” Allen said the new lawmakers felt more like observers than participants as they ran for Congress in the fall of 1996. “We didn’t feel in control of our own campaigns,” he said. “There were outside influences. We found ourselves in a system that doesn’t work well for the campaign-finance offensive.”

That’s also the message that the hearings are designed to provide for the American people.

xxxx TV coverage CNN - Live coverage of opening statements at 7 a.m.; coverage afterward as events warrant. MSNBC - Live coverage from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. C-SPAN - Live coverage from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Fox - Live coverage of opening statements, periodic coverage as events warrant.



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