Campaign Finance: Beware that the cure does not become the disease

A Scandal Guide for the Perplexed

The scandal game in Washington, DC is only going to get worse, and you may want a scorecard. That is because the latest collection of charges could turn out to do long-term damage to our system of representative democracy, leading to false reforms that will make matters worse, not better.
Here is the dilemma: If serious law breaking at high levels is not punished, permission will seem to be granted to lesser law breakers; and society’s kooks will feel justified in their apocalyptic fears. But punish inappropriately or “reform” too stringently and you will make nearly anyone who takes part in politics a presumptive criminal and damage free speech. This dilemma fairly calls out for statesmanship, not only on the part of officeholders and judges, but also on the part of the public.

The current “sides” in the struggle to define and punish corruption seem easy to describe, but only at first. There are so many devious agendas developing that the Byzantine court would look innocent by comparison.

Republicans believe that the media cheated them out of two presidential elections by playing down valid political charges against the Clintons (Whitewater in 1992, misuse of the FBI and the Immigration Service in 1996). They believe the Democrats and their allies broke existing campaign finance laws in the last campaign and they want revenge.

But some Republicans only want to wound the President, not impeach him, preserving him as a future campaign issue. They also fear the “moral equivalence” argument that will follow once as failings of GOP officeholders, however minor, come to light. For example, if “soft money” contributions to parties is stigmatized because there were quid pro quo arrangements made for receiving it into the Democratic side in 1996, and it can be shown (as it can) that the Republicans raised even more soft money, even without a quid pro quo, will the voters bother to note the ethical distinction? After all, much of the media view all soft money–including money that goes to parties–dirty.

Yet again, some Republicans believe that a ban on soft money to parties is inevitable and would like to be seen as leading the “reform” movement to this achievement. That would give them more credibility, they think, in trying to nail the Clintons for conduct already illegal.
Meanwhile, the Democrats generally want to duck responsibility for any problems in 1996 by sweeping all charges into a generic critique of the “system,” and become born-again champions of reform, too. They are joined in that wish by their friends in the permanent and professional reform movement and, to large degree, the major media.

But there also are Democrats who believe the present system, whatever its flaws, is better than what might succeed it, and they are furious that the Clintons’ tacky behavior may force politicians of integrity to swallow medicine that is worse than the disease. When parties, for example, are hobbled in future election campaigns, where will their power go? To the media? To some un-elected government board? To special interests with constitutionally protected power of free speech and the right to put any message on the air they like, with no legal accountability?
Real principles as well as real lives are involved here, and you cannot always tell who has such principled concerns by what they say in public. The current mess is inviting opportunists on all sides to take every advantage of the confusion.

Consider the head of the federal employees union who called for Vice President Gore to “resign” because he had admitted making fund raising calls from the White House. Funny, even the Republicans didn’t criticize Gore that harshly. Do you think it might have something to do with the unions preferring House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as the presidential nominee in 2000?
When reading each new story and charge, it might be useful, therefore, to do a sorting process. It might run like this:

Category A: “Just politics.’ These are the matters that are unseemly or not, depending on what side you’re on. The fact that a candidate raised huge sums of money from one industry or group might fall into this box. Not immoral, and not illegal, however it raises the opposition’s ire. Either party holding a normal high ticket price fundraiser falls into this category–assuming there was no quid pro quo agreement about policy influence. Tsk-tsking news stories that charge “hypocrisy” are thus unfair.

Category B: “Tacky politics.” This stuff is possibly unethical, but legal. I would argue, for example, that most “lies” in politics fall into this category, as does most sexual misbehavior. Laws can be counterproductive here. Control it with custom and elections. Some of the most dangerous “reform” legislation seeks to control this area of public life.

Category C: “Illegal, but not serious.” This is the petty offense that deserves a comparably mild reproof. Do not exaggerate the crime or the penalty. Maggie Williams accepting a check in the White House that was meant for the Democratic National Committee falls into this category (say I). Most process problems fall into this category, too–papers that weren’t filled out right or deadlines that were missed.

Category D: “Illegal and serious.” Here is the kind of matter that should focus the minds of independent counsels, congressional investigators, and ordinary concerned citizens. No one has proven that there was a quid pro quo for donors invited to the White House, or that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was directed on political grounds to rush through naturalization papers for potential Clinton voters, regardless of standard criminal checks. No one has proven that Webster Hubbell effectively got hush money from Chinese interests through the Lippo group after his conviction, or that the Clinton White House was involved in getting Chinese contributors special treatment at the former Navy port facility at Long Beach.

But if that sort of thing could be proven, you would have a genuine, big time scandal. It would not require “reform” legislation; just prosecution under existing corruption statutes.

On the other hand, using an old fashioned corruption case as an excuse to cripple the political system for the future with unconnected “reform” legislation would only compound the tragedy.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.