A Sputtering Start For Campaign Finance Hearings
By Craig Staats/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (July 11) -- Three days isn't enough to draw sweeping conclusions, but the Senate campaign finance hearings are off to a sputtering, partisan start, where the search for short-term political advantage seems far more important than anything else.
So far, with a few exceptions, the senators have set a tone that doesn't inspire much confidence that the Governmental Affairs Committee will actually ferret out the bad guys and find a way to reform the dirty business of campaign finance.
When the first witness, former Democratic National Committee finance director Richard Sullivan, finished testifying on Thursday, what did we know?
We knew there was White House interest in the DNC hiring fund-raiser John Huang (pronounced "wong") and that Sullivan had concerns about Huang because he didn't have experience raising campaign money. We also knew that some of the key figures in the money mess -- Johnny Chung and Charles Yah Lin Trie -- received sizable wire transfers from Asian sources before they gave money to the Democrats.
But beyond the occasional intriguing fact, we heard lots of speeches from the senators instead of sharp, focused questions.
If anyone had any doubts about where some senators want these hearings to go, Sen. John Glenn, the ranking Democrat, put them to rest in his opening statement. He pilloried Republicans and ex-party chair Haley Barbour over a Hong Kong tycoon's guaranteeing a $2.1-million loan to a Republican think tank run by Barbour.
"This story, as far as I know right now, is the only one so far where the head of a national political party knowingly and successfully solicited foreign money, infused it into the election process, and intentionally tried to cover it up," Glenn said. Later, some Republicans were reportedly angry that Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the panel's chairman, didn't fire back.
There were arguments, too, about leaks of Sullivan's deposition to the press (a Democratic complaint), and about members' being excluded from the Huang immunity discussions (a Republican complaint). (That was a first day surprise when Glenn revealed that Huang wanted to testify, with some limited immunity.)
To be sure, the initial sessions produced some tantalizing bits of news, including Thompson's announcement that the committee has found evidence of a high-level Chinese plan "to increase influence over the U.S. political process.
And the hearings have produced some more detail about wire transfers to Yogesh Gandhi, the Northern California businessman who, while reportedly living off relatives, managed to give big contributions to the Democrats.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine revealed that the committee has evidence of two wire transfers totaling $500,000 from a Japanese bank to Gandhi's account. Later, Gandhi gave the DNC $325,000, but Democrats were forced to return the money after newspaper accounts showed he didn't have the resources to make such a contribution.
In truth, though, the members of the Governmental Affairs Committee are the last people who should be investigating campaign finance abuses or evaluating, for example, whether Congress should outlaw unregulated "soft money" donations to the parties.
Like all incumbents, they're in office because the campaign finance system worked for them, so the natural question has to be: Why change it?
It would be better to defer to the Justice Department, an independent counsel or even a panel of public-spirited citizens. Give them the same staff of investigators and legal counsel that the committee has, and let them probe the abuses and suggest ways to clean up the system.
As for these congressional inquiries, so far they're about as convincing as a bunch of old-time newspaper reporters joining together to investigate the dangers of bottled whiskey.
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