For most congressmen, the best watchdog is a toothless watchdog

February 03, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The woeful shortcomings of the Federal Election Commission have been highlighted by admissions that the overworked, underfunded agency hasn't been able to pounce upon the well-publicized campaign-finance abuses of the 1996 presidential campaign.

The admission came in the course of a plea to a Senate committee for $6.6 million more to deal with the 1996 allegations, and it occasioned no surprise. Even in presidential-election cycles with far fewer allegations of campaign fund-raising hanky-panky, the FEC has always lagged years behind in investigating possible violations of federal law.

Presidential candidates and their campaign managers have learned that they can skirt the edges of, or even violate outright, campaign-finance laws without being found out until long after the fact. At one time, it took the commission six or more years to audit presidential campaigns. But by throwing out cases when they've gotten too old, it was able to audit all 1992 presidential campaigns in ''only'' two years.

By the time punishments finally are meted out -- almost always a modest fine and a slap on the wrist -- the winning candidate has been safely ensconced in office for some time. Even in the case of the most flagrant violations, an election will not be undone. The largest fines to presidential campaigns, to the 1988 efforts of Republicans Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, amounted to only about $100,000 each.

The commission cannot take meaningful action as violations occur, in time to affect the voters. It lacks power to seek an injunction or temporary restraining order against offenders. It has sought such power repeatedly from Congress, to no avail.

The procedure for acting on a complaint stymies any quick resolution. A candidate or campaign accused of a violation has five days to reply, after which the election commission has 15 days to review the reply. According to a spokesman, ''it takes at least 30 to 90 days for even the simplest case to be resolved,'' and then there can be appeals and long negotiations.

Duplication of effort

Vice chairman Joan Aikens says it's ''a longshot'' that the agency will get the additional $6.6 million requested to look into the illegal foreign contributions to the 1996 Clinton campaign and the mushrooming of ''soft money'' donations to both major parties. These already are being investigated by the Senate committee headed by Republican Fred Thompson, on a budget of $6.5 million.

One of the federal commission's defenders, Sen. Christopher Dodd, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 campaign, has called on his colleagues to ''give the policeman on the beat the tools he needs.'' But Congress has never been especially friendly to this particular cop, whose beat covers their own elections as well as presidential campaigns. Presidential-campaign audits are compulsory under the law, while congressional campaigns face audits only if complaints are filed and judged worthy of pursuit.

Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey says: ''Congress intentionally created the weakest regulatory agency because it regulates us. It created a dog with no teeth.'' He notes that if a member of Congress doesn't like what the Federal Election Commission does, he can ''go to the floor and cut its money,'' and the commission members know it.

To be effective, Senator Kerrey says, the agency has to have the power to impose a penalty large enough to deter candidates from permitting illegal practices in their campaigns. It must be equal for a politician, he says, ''to the death penalty'' -- empowering the FEC to order a member of Congress to surrender his seat.

It seems extremely unlikely that Congress would grant that power, but Senator Kerrey argues that if voters understand how toothless the FEC is they may demand such action. In the meantime, he says, ''having Fred Thompson spending $6 million to investigate another politician is like having [convicted killer] Jeffrey Dahmer chair a commission on cannibalism.''

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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