So, what's this fuss all about? Fund raising: Rules governing election campaigns are at the center of the current controversies over campaign money.

Sun Journal

March 25, 1997|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON -- Sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. Influence buying by China. Coffees at the White House. Fund raising at a Buddhist temple.

They are a few of the more sensational allegations that have made the aftermath of the 1996 presidential election much livelier than the campaign itself.

At the center of the controversies are the rules governing election campaigns. The law hasn't changed since the 1970s -- while everything else having to do with campaigns has, helping political parties to nearly double their take in 1996 from 1992.

Paul West of The Sun's Washington Bureau offers some of the questions and answers that follow the money.

So what's the campaign money fuss all about?

Several loosely related matters. There are allegations of illegal activity, such as the charge that China attempted to influence the '96 election by funneling $2 million in contributions to U.S. politicians. There also are more general questions about how the Democratic and Republican parties raised a quarter-billion dollars from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, many of whom have important business dealings with the government.

Who's investigating?

The Justice Department has assigned at least 25 FBI agents to its fund-raising task force. The Senate and House have each launched investigations; congressional hearings are expected to begin later this spring.

There also have been repeated calls for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore or other top government officials broke any laws in their fund-raising activities. Attorney General Janet Reno has so far refused to seek an independent counsel.

How and when did this whole affair begin?

In the middle of last year's campaign, with the discovery that a South Korean company, Cheong Am America, made an illegal $250,000 donation to the Democrats.

What was wrong with that?

The contribution didn't come from money earned in the United States. By law, foreigners cannot give money in U.S. elections unless they are legal U.S. residents. However, an overseas company may contribute if it has operations that make money in this country.

So, foreigners can't contribute. But aren't all businesses prohibited from donating?

Yes. For most of this century, the law has strictly barred corporations and labor unions from giving directly to candidates for president and for Congress.

Then how did the parties raise so much money from corporations and unions?

Since 1979, political parties have been able to accept donations that aren't covered by limits on giving to candidates. In other words, any U.S. citizen, company or union may give unlimited amounts to the national parties. This is what is known as "soft money" -- while "hard money" refers to donations subject to federal limits.

Soft money was legalized by Congress in an effort to strengthen political parties. Both the Democratic and Republican national committees had found it difficult to raise money under the strict campaign finance limits imposed after Watergate.

How can soft money be spent?

It is supposed to be used for things such as operating the national party headquarters, buying campaign buttons and bumper stickers, and running voter registration drives. But in the past 10 years, as the amount of soft money has skyrocketed, more and more of it has gone to pay for TV ads and other forms of indirect aid to candidates.

Is that legal?

That's unclear. The courts have given the parties considerable leeway in this area. Ads paid for with soft money are legal if they stick to issues or to generic appeals to "Vote Republican" or "Vote Democratic." But they may not advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

Last year, both parties ran ads that were, at best, thinly disguised attacks on the other party's candidates and appeals for support of their own nominees.

And what happened to those strict post-Watergate limits that were supposed to end big-money giving?

Those limits still exist: No one can give more than $1,000 per election to a candidate. Political action committees may give up $5,000. This applies both to candidates for Congress and those running for the presidential nomination. But the limits haven't changed in 20 years, while the value of the dollar has.

Campaign costs -- mainly the price of TV time -- have risen sharply over the same period. Candidates complain that it takes too much time to raise the millions of dollars needed to run a statewide campaign, especially when the most any individual may give is $1,000.

That's why some reformers are calling for a new, $3,000 limit on individual contributions, adjusted every two years after that for inflation.

How much money was raised in the last campaign by the major parties?

Republicans raised $416.4 million. The Democrats collected $221.6 million. But that's only hard money. The Republicans picked up an additional $138.2 million in soft money, while the Democrats took in $123.9 million.

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