WASHINGTON -- Moving at its usual snail's pace, the Federal Election Commission has suddenly interjected itself into the already complex issue of whether President Clinton violated the campaign finance laws in 1996.
The short answer is that, according to FEC auditors, the Clinton campaign did indeed use "soft money" for purposes for which it was not supposed to be used. But so did the campaign of Bob Dole, Mr. Clinton's Republican foe.
The FEC audit found that both sides paid for television commercials seeking support for the candidate specifically although the money they used was only supposed to be spent on generic party-building activities. These might include commercials supporting the entire party ticket, touting each candidate's political party in general terms or encouraging voter registration and turnout.
And because both sides broke the rules while accepting federal matching funds, the auditors decided the two campaigns should reimburse the Treasury the amounts to which they would not have been entitled if they had followed the law. If the FEC itself approves the recommendations -- which is far from certain with a commission evenly divided on party lines -- the Clinton campaign will have to pay $7 million, the Dole campaign more than $17 million.
What no one explained, of course, is why the FEC auditors required two full years to determine that this kind of ducking around the statute was being done. Everyone with any understanding of how presidential campaigns operate these days knew all along that both the soft and hard money were fully controlled by the presidential candidate's staff. And no one had any reason to be surprised when the spots specifically urging votes for Mr. Clinton or Mr. Dole looked so much like other spots that didn't make that request in specific language.
But the fact is that the FEC has never been given the kind of staff that would allow its findings to be more timely. When, for example, candidates exceed the spending limits in a primary campaign, the FEC never nails them until long after the election and thus long after the time when they might pay a political price as well as a fine.
In this case, however, the findings of the auditors may carry far more weight than usual because of the context in which they have been put forward.
At the very least, the reports make things awkward for the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who have just voted to extend their inquiry into whether Mr. Clinton violated the campaign finance laws in 1996. The answer seems to be that maybe he did, but so did the Republicans. Is the committee going to examine that?
Strictly speaking, the report of the FEC auditors doesn't deal with all the ways the law might have been violated by either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Dole. The Republicans on the committee suspect, for example, that there may be evidence of illegal foreign money being channeled into the Clinton campaign. But two other congressional inquiries have failed to establish such a pattern, so you have to wonder how Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde expects to do so in a week or 10 days.
In fact, the issues of ostensible concern to the committee already are being examined by the Justice Department as part of the criminal inquiry ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno on the basis of a preliminary FEC audit. The operative question here now is whether Ms. Reno should have turned the whole thing over to still another special prosecutor, as the Republicans have been urging.
All of this is, of course, the kind of political game-playing that defies understanding. But there are some obvious conclusions that can be drawn.
First, the system of regulating campaign money is full of holes and needs to be replaced. At a minimum, the FEC needs to be given more enforcement authority and the kind of appropriations to use that authority effectively.
Second, the Republicans are in a particularly vulnerable position because of their demonstrated refusal to support any serious attempt at campaign-finance reform. That could change with the departure of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but don't bank on it.
Meanwhile, both parties are free to play the cheapest kind of politics with the issue. That is what the Republicans on Judiciary are doing now with their 11th-hour attempt to broaden their inquiry -- an attempt undermined by the finding of those FEC auditors that breaking the rules in 1996 was a bipartisan exercise.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 12/04/98