CHAIRMAN Fred Thompson has the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee once again looking for fund-raising misdeeds. Now the committee is looking into the relationship between the Teamsters union and the Democrats.
But there is more than mischief to learn from the Teamsters. The Senate could find a great way to reform campaign financing by examining the handling of the recent Teamsters elections.
That's right. Our federal officeholders can find a way to improve democracy by emulating the Teamsters.
Under federal supervision since 1989 after decades of graft, the Teamsters last December were required to have their 1.4 million members directly elect their president. They had done this before.
Five years earlier, for the first time ever, Teamsters members directly elected their president. They chose Ron Carey, a maverick who promised real and symbolic reform. Mr. Carey faced a tough re-election bid. Unfortunately, his lieutenants (and Mr. Carey himself, his foes allege) violated several laws that regulate the raising of funds for union elections.
Ron Carey won -- here is where the Senate should take notice -- but his victory was voided because of fund-raising improprieties. The democratic will of Teamsters members was too precious, a federal election overseer ruled, to retain an officeholder who might not have won fairly. Serious measures were taken to ensure a truly democratic process.
A new election will be held. Incumbent Carey might not be allowed to run. Steep fines have been imposed. And Mr. Carey's lieutenants have pleaded guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges.
One Carey loyalist told a federal judge that his reputation was "irreparably damaged" and his guilty pleas would significantly diminish, if not end, his ability to work for the causes he believes in.
That is not how the law treats federal candidates and political parties that are found to have violated campaign finance rules. Fines are imposed rarely, and then only after years of litigation. The 1992 Clinton campaign still was paying fines in 1997.
Political professionals routinely play the system.
Senate committee testimony revealed that former GOP Chairman Haley Barbour had partisan contributions sent to a tax-exempt organization while he ran the Republican Party, and Clinton operatives used the Democratic Party to funnel money to the president's re-election efforts.
Officeholders feign surprise when it is revealed that donors expect and often receive access and influence when they contribute.
In their hearings, members of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, each of whom raised millions for their own campaigns, literally gasped when oilman and financier Roger Tamraz explained how he tried to further his business interest by contributing to the Democratic Party.
Imagine if we protected campaigns for federal office as fervently as we protect Teamster elections.
Fund-raising monkey business would financially cripple candidates and political parties. Lawbreakers would simply be out of work. And most dramatically, if the judiciary concluded that illegal campaign funds had affected an election's outcome, a new election would be ordered.
Unions have diversified their ranks in the 1990s, and the Teamsters represent not only truck drivers but also nurses and secretaries. Although the process is not always pretty, the Teamsters are operating like a real representative democracy. The Senate should take notice.
Kenneth N. Weine is with the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 10/16/97