Will Senate Hearings Sizzle Or Fizzle?
By Craig Staats/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (July 4) -- After a steady drip, drip, drip of campaign finance revelations since last fall, the next phase in the campaign fund-raising controversy begins Tuesday, with hearings by Sen. Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee.
So far, the partisan wrangling among senators over the committee's investigation hasn't been quite as sharp as the fierce in-fighting on the House side.
But there still is no guarantee that Thompson's committee will be able to secure the kind of blockbuster testimony that will capture the nation's attention, tell a coherent story or lead to meaningful reform.
Thompson told CNN's Candy Crowley this week that he's working for a thorough, calm investigation into alleged illegalities, including questions of money-laundering and foreign involvement in the 1996 U.S. election.
"All I can do is try to do a good job," Thompson said. "The definition of a good job is not trying to hype things or create turmoil or grab a headline every 30 minutes. The way you do a good job is to follow the facts where they lead, and be fair in the way that you treat people and handle the investigation.
"If I'm able to do that, I'll live with whatever political consequences come from that," Thompson said. "And if we do our job well, if we're thorough and fair and act like adults doing adult work and not like kids in a sandbox, which is what the American people, I think, often expect of us, then we'll all be OK."
With the spotlight on the committee, Thompson said members realize they can't be partisan. "We can't have business as usual when we go public, and when people are watching, the average person is watching to see how we're doing," he said. "That's coming home to us now."
The committee's ranking Democrat, John Glenn of Ohio, says he is "cautiously optimistic" that the hearings may develop information that will lead to reform. But Glenn continues to press for a balanced inquiry that looks at both Democratic and Republican fund-raising.
"I think we have the opportunity here of doing some great things for this country," Glenn said. "I think through the years, over the past dozen years or so, the pernicious influence of money in political campaigns has become just intolerable. I think we have to correct it and these hearings are going to be the most definitive set of hearings to lay the informational base to really do a good campaign finance reform."
Glenn agreed that the question of whether overseas money flowed into campaigns is critical.
"What this does is create such cynicism and doubt about our whole political system that's it's a dangerous thing for the future," Glenn said. "That's the reason why I wanted to take the broadest possible look at this thing."
But some of the people who could probably tell interesting stories about that aspect of the fund-raising mess -- Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Charlie Trie or Thai businesswoman Pauline Kanchanalak, for instance -- aren't expected to testify.
If they do, it might be as simple as, "On the advice of my attorney, I respectfully decline to answer on the grounds I might incriminate myself."
Sam Dash, a veteran of the Watergate scandal, which produced some riveting Senate hearings, says Republicans must convince Americans that there is a serious scandal out there.
"They have to present it in a way that the public will trust how they're presenting it," Dash said. "And if it's a cohesive story that presents an outrage to them, then they'll get that reaction."
Surveys, though, suggest the public is of at least two minds about campaign fund-raising. A solid majority of people believes that monied special interests have far too much say in Washington and that big donations buy greater access.
And a strong majority -- 71 percent -- think that both major parties are equally likely to engage in questionable fund-raising, according to a Princeton Survey Research Associates survey earlier this year.
But polls also show that reforming campaign finance is a relatively low priority for most Americans, who are more concerned about keeping their jobs, educating their children and avoiding crime.
One danger for both the Senate and House committee members is coming off as hypocrites. Most elected officials in Washington got here because they worked the existing campaign finance system to their advantage, tapping political action committees and spending hours on the phone, begging for money.
If they aren't careful, lawmakers who profess shock or surprise at whatever abuses come to light during the hearings could come off looking sanctimonious and phony.
Earlier this year, Kent Cooper of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C. campaign finance watchdog group, warned of just that possibility.
"The fear is that you'll have some hearings and then they will degenerate into partisan bickering and name-calling, with members of Congress claiming a holier-than-thou approach and possibly the public might start to laugh at them ... And that would probably further turn off voters and increase the cynicism and therefore nothing would change," Cooper said.
For an interesting perspective on fund-raising, the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site includes a complete rundown of 1995-96 fund-raising by the senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee. Log on and you'll find, for instance, that Sen. Thompson collected more than $4.2 million during the 1995-96 cycle, including $197,000 from finance, insurance and real estate political action committees.
But Cooper suggested that if the Senate hearings focus on problems in the campaign finance system, it could be the start of a worthwhile process.
A quarter century ago, the Senate Watergate hearings grabbed the nation's attention. There were witnesses with inside information, like John Dean, and actual surprises, like the existence of the White House's surreptitious taping system.
In Watergate, there also was a simple, easy-to-understand crime at its heart, a money trail that led from Republican coffers to the conspirators and a sharply focused question: What did the president know and when did he know it?
In the campaign finance controversy, some of the questions are just as sharp: Did illegal overseas money make its way into Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, and did that money affect U.S. foreign policy?
But after that, it gets a lot murkier. Even campaign finance law experts argue about some aspects of what occurred; witness Al Gore's labored "no controlling legal authority" explanation about his calling potential campaign donors from his White House office.
Still, the sheer sweep of what's come to light so far may be enough for Thompson's committee to paint a picture of fund-raising run amuck. There are the White House coffees, the Lincoln bedroom stays, Gore's and Bill Clinton's fund-raising calls, the White House database, and questionable contributions to the Democratic National Committee that the party had to give back.
Whether it emerges with a clear focus, or as an "everybody's-guilty-of-something" mishmash, we won't know until later this fall.
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