Fade-out of the Thompson hearings No Watergate: A political flop, Senate panel's investigation exposes seamy side of campaign fund-raising by both parties.


NO, SEN. FRED Thompson of Tennessee will not ride his committee's hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses to the White House. He failed to raise his political stature among Republicans during 32 days of often dull hearings that never found a "smoking gun" a la Watergate and never proved his assertions that the Clinton campaign was selling influence to the highest bidder.

So Senator Thompson, a former Watergate counsel and later a Hollywood character actor, called for a fade-out of his committee's hearings last week.

Republicans were almost as outraged at Mr. Thompson's hearings as Democrats. GOP leaders felt he wasn't partisan enough, that he didn't savage the White House over fund-raising excesses. Instead, he let Democrats on the panel have a few days to pummel Republicans about dubious fund-raising tactics. That didn't satisfy Democrats, though, who knew the overall objective was to wound their party.

But these sessions served an important purpose. They spotlighted for voters the terrible practices, by both parties, aimed at gaining contributions from special interests in exchange for access. This drew enough public attention to shame Senate and House leaders into pledging votes on reform bills next spring.

That may prove merely symbolic. Both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott vigorously oppose reforms that curb unlimited donations to political parties and the partisan involvement of ostensibly nonpartisan tax-exempt organizations. Indeed, it was lack of support from Senate Republican leaders that blocked a full-blown examination of fund-raising abuses.

Meanwhile, a rogue House committee under right-wing Republican Rep. Dan Burton is plunging ahead with its own hearings. Its avowed purpose: Skewer Democratic fund-raising practices. Few people may be listening, though, given Mr. Burton's obvious partisanship and the lackluster Thompson hearings.

Yet most Americans want an overhaul of campaign laws. It could become a potent issue in some congressional races. If Messrs. Gingrich and Lott insist on undermining these efforts, they may end up harming Republicans. Opposition to campaign fund-raising reform is bad politics, especially in an election year.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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