House Fund-Raising Panel OKs Witness Immunity Requests
Senate committee continues debate on banning soft money
By R. Morris Barrett
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sep. 24) -- The House's fund-raising hearings got back on track after Democrats on the investigating panel joined Republicans today to approve immunity for three witnesses. Meanwhile, the Senate's hearings continued their focus on so-called "soft money."
The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, headed by Indiana Republican Dan Burton, unanimously approved granting immunity to Manlin Foung, sister of controversial Democratic fund-raiser Charlie Trie, and her friends Joseph Landon and David Wang.
The three were to have been the panel's lead-off witnesses in its first public hearing originally scheduled for Sep. 17, but they abruptly refused to appear unless freed from any possible prosecution.
Whether Democrats would cooperate with Republicans on immunity was in doubt, as the panel has been plagued by partisan spats and delays. Under House rules, a two-third's majority on the committee is required to grant immunity to a witness.
After reviewing their cases, the Justice Department last week indicated it would not oppose granting immunity to the three. A federal judge must still approve the requests.
Committee sources say the three witnesses have told investigators they purchased about $40,000 in tickets to Democratic fund-raising events at the behest of Trie and and former Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. Later they were paid back, partly, in money from overseas accounts.
Debating money in politics
At the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's fund-raising hearings on the other side of Capitol Hill, senators and witnesses debated linking a proposed ban on soft-money contributions with new regulations on independent advocacy groups.
Established as legally separate from political campaigns and thereby not subject to the same federal regulations, such groups have increasingly sponsored advertising that benefits candidates. Republicans complained of labor's $30 million ad campaign that targeted vulnerable GOP House members. Another example is the notorious 1988 "Willie Horton" ad that sought to portray Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as soft on crime.
"I think it's a really critical issue, because I think what's going to happen once we ban soft money ... that the money could very easily just move over to these phony issue advocacy ads which are really political ads, and if that happens we won't really have gotten at the problem," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
"It could become much worse," agreed Brooking Institution scholar Thomas Mann. "I could imagine a scenario in the next presidential election in which we would look back fondly on the experience of 1996. We really have to deal with issue with soft money and issue advocacy together," he said.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties raised unprecedented amounts of soft money in the last election cycle, which some say led to reckless fund-raising practices. Banning soft money donations is at the heart of the McCain-Feingold reform bill, which Senate leaders on Tuesday agreed would be debated before Congress' Columbus Day recess.
The fund-raising panel, led by Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson, this week shifted its focus from alleged abuses to reform proposals. Appearing with Mann on the day's first panel was Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Common Cause leaders Ann McBride and Donald Simon, all of whom support banning soft-money donations to the national parties.
McBride warned that the growth of independent groups sponsoring issue ads was perverting democracy.
"What is happening with issue ads is fundamentally altering the electoral system in this country -- this is behind the corruption issue -- and what you will have is a situation that continues where candidates are bit players in their campaign and where the American people looking at the candidates will not know what they stand for," she said.
Taking great exception to the panel discussion was Utah GOP Sen. Robert Bennett. Praising their motives as pure, he nonetheless asserted, "I think you are profoundly wrong and leading us in a direction that could be disastrous."
It's "censorship," he said, "for the federal government to get involved in determining who can speak and when they can speak and how they can speak. The Supreme Court has said over and over that in today's world, money is speech. Political money is speech. The days when Abraham Lincoln can walk his congressional district and shake hands with every voter are over."
Bennett's view was echoed during an afternoon session by Cato Institute President Edward H. Crane.
"This is an issue of who controls the political process in American -- the government or the people," Crane said. "There is a disturbing theme in the pronouncements of self-described public-interest groups that invariably chills political debate, reduces information available to the public and protects the political class from outside competition."
On the panel with Crane was League of Women Voters President Becky Cain, Committee for Study of the American Electorate President Curtis Gans, Public Campaign Executive Director Ellen Miller, Rutgers University professor Leo Troy, and Campaign Reform Project board member Douglas Berman.
Miller, Berman and Cain each spoke in favor of banning soft money, and said their organizations embraced a long-term goal of federal financing for campaigns. Cain cited polls indicating Americans believe the political process is broken and warned senators against shortchanging full debate on reform legislation.
"Members should be allowed to offer amendments," she said, adding that any procedural motions to skirt a final vote "will be a clear and unambiguous signal that the Senate is comfortable with the campaign finance system just as it is."
Gans said he supports partial federal financing, though he suggested neither the courts nor corporate interests would accept financial limits on campaigns. "You are not going to be able to cap that, and the message that has been authored in legislation so far, I don't think any court will find compelling," he said.
Troy advocated a "free market" in politics, eschewing money limits and calling for term limits. The latter, he said, would make lawmakers less prone to special interests.
"If we have leaders who don't take their finger and put it up to the wind to find out which way the wind is blowing today, then I don't think the issue of money is going to make a difference," he said.
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Wednesday Sept. 24, 1997
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