February 27, 1998

Lawmakers Continue Fund-Raising Even as They Debate Limits

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    WASHINGTON -- By day, lawmakers spent most of this week debating legislation that would have significantly curbed campaign spending. By night, they chased ever more campaign money, not pausing to mourn the failure of another effort to overhaul the nation's campaign finance system.

    On the Senate floor, various lawmakers decried the unseemly race for campaign cash as they considered the McCain-Feingold bill and then walked outside to attend the usual slew of fund-raising receptions. Despite all the attention paid to financing scandals in the past year, lawmakers and lobbyists find themselves beholden to a frenetic fund-raising schedule that stacks one event on top of another.

    Tuesday night was no different. After the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, executed a parliamentary maneuver that effectively doomed the legislation, he dealt another blow to the bill's Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. The Mississippi Republican trotted over to La Colline, a fancy restaurant just steps from the Senate, where back-to-back fund-raising receptions are often held on nights when the Congress is in session. There, Lott, along with eight other Republican senators and Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, headlined a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser for Feingold's likely Republican opponent in the 1998 Senate contest, Rep. Mark Neumann.

    On Wednesday, as the bill's death rattle intensified, President Clinton, a McCain-Feingold backer, was feted at two fund-raisers in San Francisco and collected $500,000 for Democratic House candidates. At the home of Bill Hambrecht, the wealthy founder of the investment firm Hambrecht & Quist, the president rubbed shoulders with guests who paid $10,000 a person to dine with him on on Hog Island oysters and stuffed lamb loin.

    And on Thursday night, after the McCain-Feingold bill was pronounced dead, lawmakers and lobbyists repaired to the restaurants and clubs that rim the Capitol for their usual fund-raising bill of fare.

    Even with the worst campaign finance scandal since Watergate and a year-long investigation into fund-raising excesses in the 1996 elections, Senate backers of the McCain-Feingold bill were unable to muster the 60 votes necessary to overcome Republican delaying tactics.

    "We don't have a campaign finance system any more. The loopholes are bigger than the laws," observed Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., during the debate. Thompson, who led the Senate investigation into the 1996 campaign finance imbroglio, was one of the few Republicans who favored the measure, which was supported by 45 Senate Democrats and seven Republicans.

    Although many contributors and fund-raisers agree with Thompson that the current campaign finance system is discredited and disreputable, it works to the advantage of congressional incumbents, who enjoy a huge edge over challengers. Incumbents attract the attention of lobbyists and donors who contribute primarily to promote or protect their special legislative interests.

    Thus, every effort to overhaul the system since the late 1970s has gone down to defeat, as the amount of money raised in each election cycle has gone through the roof. Senators raised more than $16,000 per week to stay in office in 1996, a 32 percent increase from 1992. House members hauled in $6,000 a week, a 15 percent increase from four years earlier. This year, the weekly quotas are even higher.

    Washington lobbyists can hardly keep up with the flood of invitations. Steven Stockmeyer used to keep his piled up in a bathtub. Now, he says, "I rarely even open them all up. I throw a lot of them away." Stockmeyer, who represents some of the largest business political action committees, says he receives more than a half-dozen invitations to fund-raisers a day, but he has cut back sharply on the number of events he attends. "The Washington fund-raiser has lost whatever meaning it ever had," he said in a telephone interview.

    And it's not unusual for Washington lawmakers to attend more than one fund-raising event a day. On Wednesday, for example, Democratic House leaders were torn between competing events. Their fund raising began early, at breakfast. Democratic donors willing to fork over between $5,000 and $20,000 a year could attend a Speaker's Club breakfast at the National Democratic Club with members of the House Appropriations Committee.

    In the evening, for those unable to join the president for the two West Coast dinners sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the committee's chairman, Rep. Martin Frost, threw a $100,000 event for his own re-election. The Texas Democrat has headed the campaign committee since 1995 and raised more than $14 million last year.

    Frost supports campaign finance reform, but only up to a point, according to the spokesman for the campaign committee, Daniel Sallick. "He believes in campaign reform but does not believe in unilateral disarmament," Sallick said. "He and all of us don't apologize for raising the money we need to raise. We got outspent by the Republicans three to one last time."

    Republicans, who do not, for the most part, wrap themselves as eagerly in the campaign reform mantle, were busy raking in money the same day. On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma provided the star power at a fund-raiser for Republican candidate Charlie Crist, a challenger who is running for the Senate in Florida. That night, the Congressional Forum, a club of Republican donors who contribute between $15,000 to $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, hosted a reception for Republican House committee chairmen at the Capitol Hill Club.

    Even Feingold has hardly been absent from the money chase. On Sunday, before leaving for Washington to steer his bill onto the Senate floor, he attended a $50-per-person reception which drew about 200 people at the home of a supporter in Sheboygan, Wis. He will have to raise more than $3 million in his race against Neumann, even though both candidates have voluntarily agreed to limit some of their fund raising and raise most of their money from people who live in the state.

    Feingold's campaign manager, Mike Wittenwyler, sees no irony in how his boss began the most important week of his career as a campaign reformer. "The Sheboygan event was a typical Feingold grass-roots, home-based event," he said.

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