Gore's call for campaign reform includes soft money, lobbyists

Bush chides proposals, says credibility is key

March 28, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Acknowledging that his fund-raising excesses had rendered him "an imperfect messenger" for the cause of campaign reform, Vice President Al Gore proposed an ambitious package of measures yesterday to sever the link between big-money campaign donors and the politicians they seek to influence.

In a speech laced with references to abuses during the 1996 White House campaign, Gore called for a ban on unregulated "soft money," new disclosure requirements for Washington lobbyists, free television time for federal candidates and creation of a $7.1 billion endowment that would finance congressional candidates who forsake private donations.

The package would be "the most sweeping campaign finance reform in history," Gore told an audience at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

In going well beyond his earlier campaign funding proposals, the vice president amplified his contrition for the events of 1996, when he attended a much-ridiculed fund-raiser at a Southern California Buddhist temple and made more than 50 solicitations for campaign money on a White House telephone.

"Democrats, along with Republicans, engaged in fund-raising that pushed the system to the breaking point," Gore acknowledged. "I have the scars to prove it. And I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause, but the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem."

Republicans were not about to accept that mea culpa. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the putative Republican White House nominee, accused Gore of hiding information about his role in the 1996 fund-raising scandals, and he again called for the release of e-mails and White House photographs that could prove embarrassing, if not incriminating, to the vice president.

"Any promise to reform our campaign finance system will ring hollow unless it is grounded in credibility," Bush said yesterday. "Credibility based on consistency, integrity and disclosure."

But advocates of fundamental change to the fund-raising system were willing to look beyond the past, if Gore is truly willing to fight for the proposals he embraced yesterday. Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform advocacy group, called Gore's proposals creative ideas and "an important and positive development."

"The most important step in my view that the vice president can take to establish credibility on the issue is to lay out a specific plan of action on how he's going to make this happen if he's elected," Wertheimer said.

Gore began laying out that plan, vowing to make legislation to ban soft money -- the large, unregulated donations made to political parties -- the first domestic priority of his presidency. Such a ban has been championed by Sen. John McCain, and Gore mentioned the Arizona Republican's name repeatedly yesterday, seeking the mantle of reform that McCain carried during his campaign for the White House.

McCain responded skeptically, saying he welcomed "any good-faith proposal to reform our broken campaign finance system" but calling on Gore to reopen the investigation into his 1996 activities.

In truth, Gore's plan goes well beyond the reforms McCain has embraced. Even those more limited proposals have been steadfastly opposed by Republican leaders in Congress.

Under the vice president's proposal, a "Democracy Endowment" would be filled by tax-deductible contributions. Once the coffers are filled, interest and investment returns would be used to fund congressional campaigns.

Opponents have labeled legislation to fund such campaigns with tax dollars -- the way the general presidential election is now funded -- as "welfare for politicians," and it has been repeatedly rejected by Congress.

Gore would also force lobbyists to disclose their activities monthly on the Internet to shed some light on the back-room influence of moneyed interests in Washington.

Under the plan, organizations that finance independent advertising campaigns for a candidate would have to disclose their identities and donors. And broadcasters would have to give five minutes of free air time to every candidate for federal office in the last 30 days of a campaign. If they refuse, the networks could lose their licenses.

Gore also took the time to excoriate his Republican opponent, who has proposed a far less sweeping set of changes to the campaign funding system. Gore noted that Bush likes to refer to himself as the candidate from outside of Washington.

"But," Gore said, "being an outsider is about more than where you live. It's about who you're fighting for."

Like Gore, Bush has proposed banning soft-money contributions from labor unions and corporations. But Bush would not limit such donations from wealthy individuals. The Texas governor would also bar unions from using workers' dues for political activity, unless they receive written permission from the workers.

And Bush would raise the $1,000 limit that donors can give directly to a candidate.

The Texas governor rejected Gore's endowment proposal.

"It's a taxpayer-financed government takeover of campaigns that replaces individual spending decisions with decisions made by an unelected government committee," Bush said.

But fund-raisers for both presidential candidates appeared to welcome some possible respite from the quest for cash.

Dick Hug, a co-chairman of Bush's campaign in Maryland, said individuals should be limited in the amount they give to the parties, a position he thought Bush endorsed.

"You're not going to give $100,000 just because you're a nice guy," Hug said. "Someone giving in the high five figures or more wants something in return."

Mitchell Berger, a top Gore fund-raiser in Florida, noted that money men would still be out soliciting smaller, regulated contributions of "hard money" from candidates. But Gore's proposal, if fully implemented, would dramatically curtail fund-raising.

"Who wouldn't feel better about that?" Berger asked.

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