September 17, 1999
Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot offer end-of-week political analysis on the continued debates on campaign finance reform and executive privilege.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Gigot and Oliphant, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant; Mark Shields is off tonight. Campaign finance reform, Paul, it passed the House again t his week, now what again in the Senate?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal columnist: Well, it goes over to the ritual burying ground for this kind of legislation. The House, I think, has passed this - some form of this -five times since 1990; it's always died in the Senate. I expect it'll die there again.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
PAUL GIGOT: Because Mitch McConnell, who is the leader of the Republicans on this, the man they defer to.
JIM LEHRER: Republican from Kentucky.
PAUL GIGOT: Republican from Kentucky, an expert on this, tells the Republicans - and I happen to agree with him - that it's bad law and bad politics, and I think he can get 41 people to sustain a filibuster.
JIM LEHRER: And that's what he needs. Is that all he needs?
PAUL GIGOT: That's all he needs. He had 48 last time. The supporters of the reform in the Senate have pared it back a bit from what passed in the House, so now it is really just a ban on soft money, which is money that goes to political parties unrestricted, but I don't know that that's going to do it.
|The soft money debate|
JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?
TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe columnist: In terms of prognostication I think Paul is exactly right, though I think as deaths go in the Senate, this one will at least be interesting, and it will be different, because I think the proposal has been changed substantially because it is nine votes short of what's needed to break the filibuster. The House vote really didn't supply any momentum to the cause. I think the yes vote was exactly the same as last year, if I'm not mistaken.
JIM LEHRER: What's the breakdown? What's the breakdown of Republicans, Democrats?
TOM OLIPHANT: There were 54 Republicans who voted yes, 13 Democrats who voted no. That doesn't meet my definition of bipartisan.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, as a general rule, the Republicans are opposed to it and the Democrats are not?
TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
TOM OLIPHANT: I think two fewer Republicans voted no this time; that was the difference. That hardly supplies one. So something interesting did happen in the Senate, and that is that one half of the proposal was stripped from the bill by the Senate sponsors, John McCain and Russ Feingold, and the half that was split, has split off, is the part that I think raises the most constitutional and political hackles -
JIM LEHRER: Which -
TOM OLIPHANT: And this is the proposal to, in effect, ban so-called issue advertisements by so-called independent groups in the closing weeks of the campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Give us an example.
TOM OLIPHANT: In other words, you'd be at the end of a House race say in Southern California and all of a sudden $150,000 worth of ads against one of the candidates would appear on an issue that was - appeared to advocate a defeat of this person but the money was actually coming from an interest group of some kind.
JIM LEHRER: And it wasn't considered direct advertising for the candidate.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: It was called " issue" advertising.
TOM OLIPHANT: Now, there are very serious constitutional objections to any kind of regulation of this kind of activity. What has changed now is that the issue of so-called soft money, these unregulated, often hundreds of thousands of dollars given, is put into the limelight in a way it has never been, and advocating for soft money I think is marginally more difficult than having it, and that's the difference here.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, you can portray it as, you know, in the thrall of corrupt, corporate interest, which is a pretty good applause line. I mean, McConnell's response will be that it's unilateral Republican disarmament because soft money is what Republicans raise from businesses, and Democrats raise it from businesses too, but Republicans raise more. They raise it to counteract the independent spending that unions, the Sierra Club, and trial lawyers do on their own on behalf of Democratic candidates. So it helps balance the scale.
JIM LEHRER: No. Go ahead.
TOM OLIPHANT: What is going to be different about this debate, though, is that having stripped the proposal to a ban on soft money, what the proponents now do is go to Republicans, who might be wavering a little bit and say, would you like to offer an amendment of your own that you think - you know - it might be a labor-oriented amendment, or it might be a big deal like say raising the individual contributions limit, which many Republicans - even Democrats - feel should happen. And the question is whether by taking amendments from individual Republicans the proponents can gradually increase their strength to where they get within spitting distance of what it takes to shut off the filibuster.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, how did Mitch McConnell become so powerful on this issue?
|The powerful senator from Kentucky|
PAUL GIGOT: The old-fashioned way; he earned it. He's gone to school on this issue. This is a process issue; you know, there's not a lot of glamour associated with it. So if you study it and you go to school on it, your colleagues begin to defer to you.
JIM LEHRER: But isn't it unusual, Tom, for one member of the United States Senate to be so powerful on an issue that he alone can kill something?
TOM OLIPHANT: No, not at all, and I think - if I could expand a little bit on what Paul said - I think the source of his influence is his willingness to do the job. You know, it's a relatively thankless job when you think about it, and under the umbrella of the Republican leadership in the Senate - and of course he does also control the campaign committee for Republican -
JIM LEHRER: He's chairman of the Senate -
PAUL GIGOT: And that has helped the last two cycles to increase his power - but I want to underscore a point that you made. This is not the glamour position to take in politics. I mean, if you want to be on the glamour side of this, you want to get pats on the back from the editorial page and be heralded by columnists, be John McCain - you know, be Chris Shays. That's the easy political position for media coverage.
JIM LEHRER: Because then you become a maverick.
PAUL GIGOT: You become a maverick; you become a reformer; you become an independent. Mitch McConnell is, you know, Darth Vader, public enemy number one, the source of all - you know, the root of all political corruption. I mean, he's got to take this stuff, and that's not fun.
TOM OLIPHANT: Though his status, I think, creates an often misleading impression that all of this is partisan, and it isn't - if I could cite the ultimate authority.
JIM LEHRER: I thought you just said it was.
TOM OLIPHANT: Not entirely. If I could cite the ultimate authority from this side of the street - my brother and mentor, Mark Shields, Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Bob Michel, Alan Simpson, Howard Baker, George Bush, the father, the opponents of soft money are not simply left Democrats. This issue has more nuance than that and more support than that. I still don't believe there's enough support for it to break a filibuster, but McConnell is a false stick figure for the opposition because I think it goes deeper than that.
PAUL GIGOT: You notice most of the people on that list aren't running for office anymore.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right. (laughter) And have benefited from that old system, right?
|The use of executive privilege|
|JIM LEHRER: Yes. Executive privilege reared its interesting
head again this week. President Clinton said no to Congress on some documents
having to do with the Puerto Rican tendency case. How do you read that?
TOM OLIPHANT: Politically, Jim, nobody ever benefited politically from the assertion of a constitutional right or in this case perhaps even the performing of a constitutional duty in this matter to defend the office, which includes in the Constitution the sole power of - not subject to oversight.
JIM LEHRER: And that was the grounds on which the President is exerting this - hey, look, this is - there's no legislative oversight.
TOM OLIPHANT: If this gets in the courts, I mean, one of the quotes that will be used in support of the President's position is a very tough statement on this from an old Nixon administration assistant attorney general named Rehnquist. But -
JIM LEHRER: What did he say?
TOM OLIPHANT: That this kind of testimonial duty to Congress does not exist on the part of the administration and you can - but politically, everything having to do with this subject has been botched by the administration -
JIM LEHRER: You're talking about the Puerto Rican thing.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. And this is perhaps the last but at least one more effort to keep it alive politically. I have not heard any assertion that the decision was made for any reason, other than the one stated that by the President, as he's been questioned about this. But it's Dan Burton, the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, subpoenas went out today. We'll see what happens, but I have the feeling this may be the end of it, rather than the beginning.
PAUL GIGOT: It's also Chuck Schumer, I mean, who's been more loyal -
JIM LEHRER: The Democratic Senator from New York.
PAUL GIGOT: From New York. More loyal to the President and Mrs. Clinton than James Carville, and he says turn over the documents. So when a New York Senator says that, you know - a Democrat - you know -
|The use of presidential powers|
LEHRER: Forget - you agree with Tom - forget the - whatever kind of little
- technical, legal things that may be involved here, and is - do you know
of anybody who disputes the President's legal ground for exerting executive
privilege on this issue?
PAUL GIGOT: There may be, but I called C. Boyden Gray, who was George Bush's White House counsel, and I asked him, and he said, no, the pardon power is - the executive privilege claim here from a legal matter is strong. It's a non-delegated power, and the power is absolute - the pardon power. Nobody disputes that. That gives them a very strong claim, but it does get to the question of if there's nothing to hide, why hide it?
TOM OLIPHANT: And this involves Sen. Schumer - be careful what you ask for - because there are materials in this case that are suitable for turning over, and they include about 10,000 pages of documents that are statements from people around the country why the clemency offer should be offered.
JIM LEHRER: Why are the Republicans so keen on making this an issue?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, because it's an outrage for a lot of people out there that the President pardoned -
JIM LEHRER: The pardon issue, rather than the executive privilege issue.
PAUL GIGOT: He pardoned people who are associated with, if not practitioners themselves, of bombings, and that doesn't sit very well with a lot of people. And the fact that you - the credibility of this administration is not great, and the fact that you can raise the possibility that he did this for political reasons, a lot of people after six years of this administration say, they did that, so the Republicans can keep making this argument, and it's going to work for them. I think it is working for them. It's working against her in New York.
TOM OLIPHANT: In New York but not nationally. I think there's a big difference between the two worlds, because Hispanic opinion is so firm that these sentences were unfair.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.