Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

       It was supposed to be boring today, but it wasn’t. The Thompson committee hearings opened with an unexpected news bang when John Glenn, the top Democrat on the Government Affairs Committee, announced that John Huang, the former Commerce Department official and Democratic fund-raiser who is the chief villain in the scandal, wanted to rebut the charges against him. Huang, who has heretofore said he would take the 5th Amendment if compelled to testify, was now offering to answer all the committee’s questions, in exchange for a grant of limited immunity from prosecution for election-law violations.
       Chairman Fred Thompson, who got this information only a short while before the hearings began, was clearly caught off guard. Before this morning, the people calling for immunity for Huang were his fellow Republicans, who believed it was the only way to get the scandal rolling. Now Democrats were proposing to immunize Huang, and offering better terms, since Huang wasn’t asking for immunity from charges of espionage or the disclosure of classified information, which are the most serious accusations that have been leveled against him.
       Thompson’s initial reaction was to accept. He told Glenn that while there were obviously details to be worked out, he welcomed Huang’s testimony. As the hearings continued into the early afternoon, however, Thompson, prodded by Pete Domenici of New Mexico, seemed to grow more suspicious that a Democratic plot was afoot. Later, he mused aloud that bringing in Huang to testify wouldn’t comport with the usual way hearings were done, starting with the small fry and working up. By early afternoon, the Republican team seemed to have determined that Huang’s offer was a trick. There was no such thing as “limited” immunity, Republican Chief Counsel Michael Madigan told reporters outside the hearing room, and it wouldn’t be fair to give Huang immunity that had been denied Buddhist monks and nuns who had helped to launder mere $5,000 contributions in a scheme apparently devised by Huang. By the end of the day, Republicans seemed to be doing their best to come up with reasons that Huang shouldn’t testify.
       The logic here is simple: If Democrats are for it, it can’t be good for Republicans. But the bigger problem for Thompson is that his villain may prove more effective as a ghost. Huang coming in to the hearing room and making a strong case that he wasn’t a Chinese spy would force the Republicans to find another plot line for the scandal. And if the story isn’t about Chinese subterfuge–the subject about which Thompson spoke at the outset of the investigation–it’s unclear what it is about.
       In fact, it’s unclear what it’s about anyway. As the 16 opening statements revealed, there are nearly as many ideas of what the campaign-finance scandal is as there are senators on the committee. To Glenn, who followed Thompson with a stemwinder of an attack on the Taiwanese money raised by Haley Barbour for a Republican National Committee front group, the story is that GOP practices are as bad as those the Democrats have been accused of, and that the whole system is rotten. To Don Nickles, a fierce conservative partisan from Oklahoma, the scandal is merely about the violations that the Clintons have been accused of, including Filegate, and allegations of lax security by Gary Aldrich. To Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, the issue is the pernicious targeting and stereotyping of Asian-Americans. To Robert Bennett, a Republican from Utah, it is the Huang Chinese conspiracy, which he compared to the intelligence gathering operations of the 19th-century Rothschild bank. This weird riff had Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew, rolling his eyes.
       Most of these plot lines are partisan and predictable. To the Republicans, this is a Clinton administration scandal. To the Democrats, it’s about campaign finance and the need for reform in general. Of those on the committee, there are only two, so far, who evince a hint of independence and suggest that they may break ranks: Susan Collins and Lieberman. Collins, a freshman from Maine who is the No. 2 Republican on the committee, is gawkily sincere. She gave a rather heartfelt statement, about how Republicans had to be fair-minded, Democrats had to resist the urge to use the “everybody does it” defense, and the public had to rise to the occasion and demand reform. “We must attempt to use these hearings to persuade the public that this is not a hopeless quagmire,” she said.
       Lieberman was the most eloquent. In what might have been the shortest of the 16 statements, he made the case that the legitimacy of our government was threatened by the role of money in campaigns. “We will find evidence that you don’t have to carry a military weapon to be an enemy of the United States Constitution,” he said. “All you need is a checkbook.” Tossing out extravagant metaphors–at one point he compared contributors to those bidding on Princess Diana’s gowns at Christie’s–Lieberman implicated himself and his colleagues in the larger scandal. “I hope we will not overlook the larger fact that these foreign corrupters who thought they could purchase influence in American government would not have been emboldened to try to buy if they did not believe there were those who were ready to sell,” Lieberman said.
       It was the only remark of the day that got at the irony underlying the hearings: When the system goes on trial, judge and jury are suspects too.