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Senators Debate Campaign Finance (Sept. 27)
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Lawmakers Agree It's Tough to Comply With Ban on Fund-Raising in Hill Offices

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 1997; Page A04

By the end of his campaign, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) had become so addled running between the Capitol and his rented fund-raising office that he lost track of who he was calling.

"I was totally wiped out," Durbin recalled. "I was asking a guy for money one afternoon and he told me, `Dick, I was for you when you called this morning, and I'm for you now.' "

For years Durbin and more than 500 Senate and House colleagues have jumped through logistical hoops to avoid breaking an obscure law that prohibits campaign fund-raising in federal buildings.

The statute has never been tested in court and may not even apply, a rationale that the Clinton administration is using to explain any fund-raising calls that President Clinton and Vice President Gore may have made from the White House in the 1996 race.

In Congress, however, the gospel according to both parties is simple: Don't make fund-raising calls from your office. "That's the rule," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) "It's just as simple as that."

Not exactly. A look at the members of just one committee – the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel charged with investigating Clinton-Gore fund-raising in the 1996 election – shows that no matter how hard lawmakers try to separate their various lives, public duties inevitably rub up against political aspirations, creating dilemmas impossible to resolve.

Had they ever raised funds from their offices? Never knowingly, said 13 of the 14 members including Durbin and Cochran. Only Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) refused to answer directly, referring instead to past remarks he has made on the subject: "To be on the safe side, you should always make [fund-raising calls] from a campaign office," Specter said, and he has one close by the Capitol.

"The reason people [senators and House members] give evasive answers is that a lot of times you call somebody from the campaign office, and they call you back at your personal office," Durbin said. "What do you do then?"

"You can't refuse to talk to him," agreed Cochran.

Or take it one step further: Suppose "you get people to call you back, and they call you at the [Capitol] office, and you don't know why they called, so you call them back," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio). Then suddenly you're making a fund-raising call from the office.

Although the kind of accidental transgressions that committee members spoke of seem common for Congress as a whole, there is little hard evidence of deliberate violations – intentional office fund-raising, storing campaign records on the office computer or using office staff as campaign gofers.

"Sometimes members would send out fund-raising appeals that said a Senate or House office should be called to confirm," said Jan Baran, who advises Republicans on election law. "Everyone always professed that it was a horrible mistake, it should never have happened, and some junior staffer was at fault."

But if lawmakers rarely discuss their sins, war stories of agonized efforts to comply with the law are part of every candidate's personal folklore. From the moment they arrive in Congress, everyone is running scared.

Durbin, who spent seven terms in the House before winning election to the Senate in 1996, used to carry a bag of quarters when he was a rookie, so he could use pay phones: " `No, no,' people told me, `you're still inside a public building.' "

So he trooped down to Democratic Party headquarters and sat in one of the "dialing for dollars" booths the party maintains for money-hungry lawmakers. The Republicans have a similar arrangement.

Then, knowing he would need more money to run for the Senate, Durbin installed a table, a phone and a fax in the bedroom of the apartment he shared with three other House members, but "I would make excuses not to use it," so he finally rented an office. "I was spending money on it, so I had to use it."

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), another committee member and former House member who ran for the Senate in 1996, had four cell phone lines in his campaign van – one to make fund-raising calls, one to receive fund-raising calls, one for campaign faxes and one for official House business: "And of course, you had to have a separate computer system to keep track of it all."

Committee member Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who won his fifth Senate term in 1996, said he still takes nothing for granted. "My campaign manager was a former fund-raiser, and she sat me down and said, `You can't do this, this and this.' "

Domenici's staff bought him a leather case for a powerful portable phone that Domenici lugged with him on car trips across town and plane trips to New Mexico. It even worked in the desert.

The only lawmaker who ever seemed to acknowledge using his office to raise money was Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who told the Wall Street Journal in 1995 that "as long as I pay for the calls, I can make the calls wherever I want to call."

Gramm said this week, however, that he was not talking about fund-raising from his office, but "political calls" to his campaign headquarters, his campaign chairman and to reporters, and always with a credit card: "I did not solicit money."

One reason he didn't solicit, he said, was that it made no sense. He planned to run in the Republican presidential primary, and the maximum anyone could give was $1,000. Gramm was trying to raise millions, and "I wasn't going to call anybody to give $1,000." He had a platoon of 20 young campaign workers to do that.

Many members of the Governmental Affairs Committee made similar arguments, saying they preferred to raise big bucks at receptions and other large events: "I didn't feel that I solicited money on the telephone under any circumstances," said Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.). "I used the advantages of incumbency."

The law, U.S. Code 18, Section 607, says, "It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit or receive any contribution . . . in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties."

Although the words seem unequivocal, legal authorities point out that no one has ever been prosecuted under the statute, and that the intent of the law written in 1883 was to stop elected officials from shaking down their employees for campaign contributions, a common practice at the time.

Given the context and the Justice Department's historical reluctance to invoke the statute, "prosecuting someone is problematic," Baran said.

But in a political context, challenging the statute carries risks. Yes, said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), also a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, the law "has always been a gray area." And, yes, in the list of sins that politicians can commit, "this is a parking violation."

But, Lieberman added, "there is the appearance" of impropriety, and no stylish legal defense is going to overcome that, as the White House is discovering. So rent an office.

"That's been the advice I've given for 20 years," said Baran. "Whether it's legal or illegal, the conventional wisdom is that you can't conduct fund-raising of any sort in the Capitol – not on the phone, not in person, not by writing letters, not by hosting events."

Thus, said Cochran, "there's a lot more to it than making a few phone calls." You don't put the public landmarks of the United States at the service of your campaign, he said, gesturing toward the Capitol corridors. "We never do campaign events here."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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