July 20, 1997
The investigation is big news in Washington, but how's it playing around the country.
The Online Explainers take your question on the investigation.
The NewsHour's coverage of the Congressional Investigation.
The inside stories on the political fight behind the public investigation.
A closer look at the issues really under scrutiny by the Congress.
Imagine you are a treasurer for a city council candidate in your
community. Your elderly neighbor proudly presents you with a fifty dollar
bill that she has worked long and hard to save, because she believes
passionately in the candidate you represent. If you want to comply with the
law, you may have to give the money back.
Here in Los Angeles, we have stringent laws governing city campaigns. If you are a campaign treasurer in a grass roots campaign, you are probably a close friend or relative of the candidate. You are spending many hours performing a task that would be relegated to a well-paid professional in a better-financed campaign. You are also working with a campaign committee made up of community volunteers. These are people who raise money with backyard events for $10 (often given in cash) at which they sell drink tickets and hold 50/50 drawings. They may go to a club or union meeting and pass the hat for your candidate. Then they proudly present you with a wad of cash which you must now report.
According to city campaign laws, no individual may contribute more than $25 in cash, and each cash donation must be identified with the donor's name and address, employer and occupation. Any cash over $30 deposited in the campaign bank account must also be identified as to the source, or it must be given to the city's general fund. All money collected must be funneled through this bank account, and cannot be used for petty cash. If a campaign is audited (pretty much a routine procedure), and found to be out of compliance, it is subject to discipline by the City Ethics Commission, which could include hefty fines. Even the most conscientious treasurer finds it difficult to control such a committee of well-meaning, but often uninformed individuals.
At the state level, California voters passed Proposition 208 last November, which placed new rules on campaign financing. This proposition has tightened FPPC regulations on campaigns, political parties and other organizations. Under 208, the limit on donations varies with the size of the district, but political action committees (including neighborhood clubs), which often represent large numbers of voters who pool their money to give themselves a little more clout, are subject to the same limits as individuals. One result is that fewer people are willing to volunteer to be a treasurer for a candidate or club, preferring to leave the complexities of campaign reporting to a professional. This is a burdensome but necessary expense for organizations wishing to comply with the law and avoid stiff penalties. Even the Los Angeles County Democratic Party has recently amended its by-laws to provide for a paid professional treasurer to replace one elected from among its members.
As the U.S. Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee meets to investigate alleged fundraising irregularities, the clamor for more stringent controls on campaigns grows louder and more insistent. So far, the focus is on how money is raised, as opposed to how it is spent. The FEC has regulated campaign financing since the mid-seventies, yet the cost of running an effective campaign continues to spiral. As more and more laws are passed governing the collections of these funds, campaigns and political parties have become more and more sophisticated in getting around them.
Until campaign spending is addressed (and the Supreme Court has so far ruled spending limits unconstitutional), candidates will have to work that much harder to raise funds, often at the expense of the job they were elected to do. I predict we will also see more candidates who can rely on their own personal wealth to finance a campaign, and those with smaller bank accounts will continue to scramble for the limited number of dollars available from outside donors. The biggest impact will be felt at the grass roots level, where candidates and organizations will pay a higher price to participate in the democratic process.