Campaign money chase shows no sign of slackening Despite reform calls, fund raising expected to set a record

December 11, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON STAFF RESEARCHER ERIC LEKUS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Two hundred New York Democrats sat down to a three-course dinner at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last night. At $5,000 a person, the tab was steep even by Manhattan standards. No cash was accepted, just checks, payable to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

President Clinton himself arrived there directly from a Democratic dinner (also $5,000 a plate) at the Rainbow Room, where House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt introduced him and guests enjoyed the singing of James Taylor.

The New York trip underscores the open secret of the campaign finance debate: Despite all the congressional investigations, the Justice Department inquiries, the hand-wringing by reformers, the expressions of outrage and the criticism of the system by Clinton himself, nothing has slowed the two major parties' pursuit of big donations from corporations, unions and rich individuals.

All signs point to a fund-raising frenzy that will dwarf even the record-breaking -- and abuse-filled -- 1995-1996 election cycle:

The money-raising fever is so red-hot right now, and the Democrats are so determined to keep pace with Republicans, that the Democratic National Committee quietly dropped a self-imposed $100,000 limit last month on each donation -- a limit the party had announced with much fanfare in February.

Records at the Federal Elections Commission show that both parties are raising large donations at nearly triple the rate they did four years ago.

Republicans are receiving large sums from business and industry. Historically, contributions from corporate interests were divided about evenly between the two parties. But an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, Republicans have received a sizable majority of that money, from a pot bigger than ever.

Clinton himself, despite calling for legislation to ban large, unregulated contributions, is spending much of his time raising such donations in the meantime.

Even some administration aides complain privately that fund-raisers consume too much of the president's schedule. One aide noted that Clinton recently followed his town hall meeting on race relations in Akron, Ohio, not with a visit to a black church as he might have preferred, but with three hectic fund-raisers in Chicago that same night that raised $900,000 for his party.

"Get used to it," Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman, said last week when asked about the propriety of Clinton's activity.

"Wake and see reality," McCurry said. "Reality is that campaign spending is running somewhat out of control -- and that Republicans are outspending Democrats."

As recently as last summer, the DNC pledged to forgo large donations if the Republican National Committee did the same. Republicans say they need their big donations to counter organized labor's heavy support of Democrats.

The FEC has never really enforced restrictions on the use of these large donations, commonly called "soft money," which the parties are supposed to use for such activities as voter registrations and get-out-the-vote drives.

The federal courts have further watered down the law by overturning regulations that curb the free-speech rights of private advocacy groups.

Now, with Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal so far to seek a special prosecutor to look into the 1996 abuses, some complain that the post-Watergate campaign reforms appear to have been rendered essentially meaningless.

Donald J. Simon, general counsel for Common Cause, a group that favors campaign finance reform, said: "If the campaign laws on the books are not enforced -- and therefore not obeyed we'll have this anything-goes culture in politics in which the only rules followed are the rules of the jungle."

Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who held hearings into campaign finance abuses, said the message Reno has sent to future presidential campaigns is that "they can raise as much as they want -- from any source they choose" as long as they funnel it through the state and national parties.

Those who recall Watergate -- Thompson served as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee -- fear that national politics has come full circle and is now completely awash in the kind of big money that buys influence.

After Watergate, Congress imposed a limit of $1,000 on donations from one person to a federal candidate. The new law also allowed corporations, unions or interest groups to donate up to $5,000 through a political action committee, and it permitted donations of up to $20,000 to the political parties. In return for such limits, presidential candidates were to receive matching funds from the federal government.

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