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'Direct Access' With
Dwight Morris

Thursday, September 3, 1998

With President Clinton facing a new investigation into his campaign fund-raising practices, columnist Dwight Morris came online to talk about the ins and outs of the money game. A founder of the for-profit Campaign Study Group, Morris has also written about the influence of money for the Los Angeles Times and Congressional Quarterly.

Morris answered user questions today from his Virginia office. Welcome to Direct Access. We are live now with columnist Dwight Morris. Our first question is from Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.: Is the Reno distinction between soft and hard money codified, or of her own invention (i.e. interpretation), and, if not codified, why is the Republican congress adhering to this distinction so firmly without challenging it more?

Dwight Morris: The Federal Election Commission has ruled that the parties can raise unlimited sums of so-called soft-money for "party building efforts." The interpretation that soft-money donations are not covered by current law is Ms. Reno's interpretation of the statutes defining limits on hard money. Since Congress did not specifically mention or envision the concept of soft money, it is her contention that the rules governing hard money do not apply. That is clearly her call as Attorney General, and Congress could certainly clarify itself on the issue. However, that would reopen debate on the issue of whether soft money should be banned, and that is something neither party wants.

Cincinnati, Ohio: Political action committees clearly play a major role in financing federal elections. However, to what degree do they impact statewide races, big city mayoral races and other important non-federal races. In total, do you have a sense of what percentage of overall election campaign spending throughout the country is financed by PACs?

Dwight Morris: PACs are clearly a force at the federal level, but their influence has been largely overstated. The typical House incumbent gets about 40% of his or her money from PACs. The typical Senate incumbent receives about 25% of their money from PACs. Challengers get next to nothing. Open seat candidates tend to fall somewhere in between depending upon the race and the candidates' chance of winning. Most candidates still receive the bulk of their money from individual donors – both large and small.

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to calculate the impact of PACs at the state and local level. Few states computerize their campaign data at this point – California, Texas, and New York do not, for example. Florida is one of the few states that does.

That is gradually changing, and with luck, we may have a chance to do meaningful analysis within a few years.

Arlington, Va.: In this morning's reports about a new campaign finance investigation of President Clinton, a special adviser to the White House counsel called the 1996 "issue ads" in question perfectly appropriate. What do you think of this practice, and do you think an investigation of RNC "issue ads" from '96 is warranted as well?

Dwight Morris: I would have to say that the issue ads in question violated the spirit but not the letter of the law. Unfortunately, that is the sorry state of campaign finance in general. The laws are written by people who have a vested interest in vague language that can be easily skirted.

The present debate centers around whether an ad can "advocate" a course of action without explicitly using the words "vote for" or "vote against." The FEC has essentially begged the question (although its staff has urged otherwise).

Clearly the Clinton/Gore ads paid for with soft money positively impacted their electoral chances. To the extent that Congress looks upon this as an unlawful practice, both parties should be prohibited from doing it. But again, neither party is too upset by the current system whatever their public pronouncements.

Charlottesville, Va.: Do you think that complete disclosure (even people who donated $10) of campaign contributions will make any substantial difference?

Dwight Morris: I think the disclosure of $10 donations would do nothing to improve the system. By flooding the FEC with information on tiny donations, I think the system would be worse off. The agency is already painfully slow at disclosing large donations and the additional burden created by millions of tiny donations would bring the system to a near standstill.

What should be disclosed are the millions of dollars raised and spent by outside groups working to influence elections--whether they are labor unions or organizations like the Christian Coalition. Full – AND RAPID – disclosure of all larger donations is much more important than disclosure of small donations.

Gaiters, Md.: How far will politicians go before serious campaign reform comes about?

Dwight Morris: My own belief is that significant campaign finance reform will be a long time coming. There is simply no reason for those with a vested interest in maintaining the current system to change it. That is certainly true if there is no public outcry to change things, and the McCain-Feingold bill died in the Senate for precisely that reason. Your latest "Money Talks" column is on the freshman class of '96. How did the class of '96 compare with the class of '94?

Dwight Morris: Much of what I wrote about the class of 1996 could be said about the class of 1994 and the class of 1992. I suspect that if one took the time to assemble the data, the same could be said for the class of 1974, which enacted the last major campaign finance reforms.

The simple reason for this is that very few freshmen are what I would describe as "citizen politicians." Most come from the ranks of state legislatures or state party organizations.

Few are truck drivers and homemakers who wake up one morning and decide to make the world a better place by coming to Washington. Those folks represent more than 50% of all challengers year in and year out, but virtually none of them get elected. You get elected by knowing how to raise money, by running in open seats, and by having the same party affiliation as the majority of people in the district you hope to represent.

Whatever you background, once you get to Washington one can assume a predisposition to stay – particularly since the vast majority come from the ranks of career politicians. Few of these folks ever return to Wisconsin or wherever they came from. Once they elect to leave Congress or are defeated, they become Washington lobbyists.

McLean, Va.: As distasteful as it sounds, isn't the ultimate solution for campaign finance to have no rules but maximum disclosure. For example, anybody can give any amount, but everything has to be disclosed. Thus, if a candidate takes too much from a source, voters can see it and vote accordingly if they think that candidate is too much in the tank for that source. All other campaign rules will have loopholes.

Dwight Morris: As you say, the idea strikes many people as distasteful to say the least. However, the Supreme Court has already spoken on the subject by equating money with free speech. Unlimited outside funds can thus be spent, and as long as that is the case, full and rapid disclosure is the only real choice we have (public funding theoretically would be another, but it is failing miserably at the presidential level).

Harrisonburg, Va.: Might you define the terms 'hard and soft money' and give an example.

Dwight Morris: As originally defined by the Federal Election Commission, "hard money" is money that can be used to expressly advocate the election of one candidate over another. If I raise money with the intention of buying ads or sending mailings that say "vote for me," that is hard money. In theory, soft money was intended to cover the costs of running the party organizations and building the political base--voter registration drives, rent on the part headquarters, staff salaries for those who work at party headquarters. In reality, that distinction has become so blurred as to be meaningless.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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