Money Train

"I SEE THE White House is like a subway--you have to put in coins to open the gates," Johnny Chung told the Los Angeles Times last weekend. Chung, of course, is the influence-peddling soft-money contributor who handed a $50,000 check to Hillary Clinton's chief of staff in the White House--and in return was permitted to parade six Chinese businessmen of dubious provenance into a meeting and photo op with the First Lady and lunch at the White House mess. Chung gave hundreds of thousands to the Clinton fundraising machine--and in return had practically free run of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, despite the fact that National Security Council staffers had warned he was a "hustler" who should be kept away from the Clintons.

Chung is the first to break silence of some 50 witnesses who have either gone into hiding, fled the country, or taken the Fifth Amendment, but he may not be the last. ABC News reported on Sunday that Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie--who bundled over $600,000 in laundered contributions to the president's legal defense fund and bought himself a Clinton appointment to a prestigious advisory commission on international trade--may return to the U.S. from his Beijing hideout and cut a deal with federal prosecutors, who are ready to indict him.

Those who deride the congressional investigations into campaign finance as a boring waste of time forget that we would never have known about the dubious doings of Chung, Trie, and their ilk without the documents forced into the public domain thanks to Congress's subpoena power. And Chung's explosive interview with the California paper makes clear that the shakedown was the modus operandi for the Clinton cabal.

When Chung went to Hillary's office to seek red-carpet treatment for his gaggle of Beijing front men, he says, the aide to whom he spoke left the room--obviously to consult the higher-ups--and returned 20 minutes later to tell Chung that Hillary "had some debts with the DNC" for "White House Christmas parties," adding, "Maybe you can help us." Chung says, "Then a light bulb goes on in my mind. I start to understand. I will help for $50,000."

Chung's account is only the latest illustration of a pattern of crass access-selling by the Clinton crowd, from White House coffees for fat cats to Commerce Department trade missions and corporate welfare for campaign contributors. Eliminating soft money from our political system might not prevent such abuses in the future, but it would certainly make them much more difficult.

There are signs that the voting public's disgust with such shenanigans is finally getting through to some politicians. A bipartisan group of House freshmen led by Maine Democrat Tom Allen and Arkansas Republican Asa Hutchinson has now introduced a bill to completely ban soft money from politics. Theirs is a significant improvement over the weak McCain-Feingold reform bill. Unlike McCain-Feingold, which would forbid only the national party committees from raising soft money, the Allen-Hutchinson proposal would also prohibit the national parties from raising it for or directing it to state parties. Candidates for federal office would be likewise be enjoined from flooding state party coffers with soft money. The problem with this bill is that it not only does nothing to tighten the limits on direct campaign contributions to candidates, it actually increases them by indexing the current limits for inflation!

The optimum solution is the Clean Money Clean Elections (Kerry-Wellstone) bill, previously described in this column. Spawned by the new citizens lobby Public Campaign, it would provide full public funding for candidates who agreed to abide by its limits on spending and contributions. Maine and Vermont have already adopted such legislation, and 10 days ago Public Campaign mobilized campaign-reform activists from 40 states in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a conference designed to extend the movement. The results are encouraging: Organizing for either state legislation or citizen-initiated referenda is already well under way in six states--Missouri, Massachusetts, Michigan, Idaho, Arizona, and New York City--where action is expected either this year or next. There are active Clean Money Clean Elections coalitions in 12 more states, and organizations in formation in another 20.

The congressional mandarins of both major parties are masters of inaction when it comes to campaign reform--indeed, House Majority Leader Dick Armey has already made it plain that the Allen-Hutchinson soft-money ban will never be allowed to come to the floor in the current Congress. Thus, Public Campaign's decision to outflank Washington stasis by grassroots organizing state-by-state may be the best hope for achieving campaign reform in real time. But only federal legislation can ultimately assure that future presidents won't find legal loopholes permitting them to turn the White House door into a turnstile accessible only to the rich.

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