Capitol Hill Not Shy About Calling For Cash
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON - While Republicans in Congress have proclaimed themselves shocked by recent revelations about aggressive fund raising by Vice President Al Gore and White House staff members, Capitol Hill is riddled with remarkably similar practices, veteran lobbyists and congressional aides acknowledged Thursday.
Campaign checks often change hands on Capitol Hill - even, until a big flap last year, on the floor of the House. Members of Congress routinely make the kinds of direct, personal fund-raising calls to donors for which some have criticized Gore. And despite elaborate arrangements to keep lawmakers from raising money from their offices, which is against the law, staff members and lobbyists agree that the strictures are not always observed.
GOP leaders have insisted the "everybody does it" defense holds no water in cases where White House fund-raising efforts may have violated the law. But it is clear that the gradual spread of the furor sparked by illegal donations from foreign sources to other, merely unseemly money-raising tactics is causing some awkward moments for congressional critics.
"I think the practices for which people are quick to criticize the Clinton administration are practices the Congress is ill-equipped to criticize," said Howard Paster, a longtime lobbyist and former Clinton congressional liaison official.
Congressional criticism of the White House has become more intense in the last week in response to revelations that Gore was heavily involved in direct fund raising and his admission that he made some calls for money from his office. The controversy was further fueled by disclosures that Maggie Williams, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's top aide, had accepted a donation from a Southern California businessman and passed the check along to the Democratic National Committee.
The White House has defended those practices, saying that neither Gore nor Williams violated federal law prohibiting fund raising on federal property.
On Capitol Hill, federal law prohibits members from soliciting donations in congressional buildings. However, a House Ethics Committee spokesman said, senators and House members are allowed to accept unsolicited donations in their offices, as long as they pass them along to the appropriate campaign committee within seven days.
While some lawmakers criticized Gore for making personal requests for contributions, such one-on-one solicitations are a way of life for members of Congress. Indeed, one of the most outspoken Democratic critics of Gore was Sen. Robert G. Toricelli, D-N.J., a champion fund-raiser who pulled in some $10 million for one of the most expensive Senate races in 1996. Asked if Toricelli made direct fund-raising calls of his own, Toricelli spokesman Jim Jordan said: "Of course he did."
But he suggested that it was less unseemly for Toricelli because he was not as powerful as Gore. "The difference presumably lies in the power and position held by the solicitor," Jordan said.
Personal fund raising by members of Congress is so central that House and Senate campaign committees operated by both parties have gone to great lengths to make it convenient. The committees all have special facilities where lawmakers go to make fund-raising phone calls - in nongovernmental buildings just a block or two from the Capitol.
Citing such facilities, GOP leaders have contended that their members have not been guilty of Gore's practice of making fund-raising calls from their offices. They said that Democrats are saying it is common practice to provide cover for the White House.
"I take umbrage at the idea that everyone does it," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "Everyone doesn't do it."
But lobbyists and fund-raisers from both parties said that is not always the case. Paster said that, while lawmakers often make phone calls from their campaign committee cubicles, they often leave their office numbers for return phone calls.
One well-connected Republican lobbyist, who asked not to be named, agreed and said that, even amid the current controversy, he has received fund-raising solicitations from senators calling from their offices in the last few weeks.
"If the congressional office building lines were illegal to use for fund-raising, half the Senate should be in jail," Dick Morris, former Clinton adviser who has had political clients from both parties, said recently on CNN's "Crossfire." "Would you like me to embarrass 15 of my former clients by telling you when I sat in their offices and they made fund-raising phone calls in their offices?"
Lobbyists and aides said it is common - and legal - for members to accept unsolicited donations in their offices. Many contributors and lobbyists choose to drop off or mail campaign contributions to a congressional office rather than to a campaign office so they get more "credit," as one GOP lobbyist put it.
Another lobbyist said: "Frankly, if we accept to go to a fund-raiser and cannot, we have mailed the checks to the Hill" on the assumption that a lawmaker's staff will take greater note of such generosity than would campaign workers.
Some politicians who have been caught up in the current fund-raising scandal said they are being unfairly criticized for perfectly legal practices. But critics said that does not make them ethical.
"The scandal here is what's legal," said Meredith McGehee, legislative director for Common Cause. "When what's legal is scandalous, it's no surprise that at some point the lines are totally blurry."
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