Ballot Box

Ballot Box to Bush: Release the Codes!

Whenever someone complains about George W. Bush’s opting out of the voluntary federal spending limits in order to raise the unprecedented sum of $67 million (and counting) for the primaries, Bush and his supporters have an answer ready. Actually, they have two answers. The first is that, thanks to the antiquated contribution limit of $1,000, even the maximum donation is a minute drop in the bucket–something on the order of .0015 percent of the total collected. Their other answer is that the campaign goes well beyond what the law requires by making prompt and complete disclosure of all contributions on its Web site.

A story by Michael Isikoff in Newsweek gives the lie to both these defenses. Isikoff discovered that the Bush campaign has devised a system for keeping track of how much various special interests are collecting for the candidate. These amounts are far in excess of $1,000. And they aren’t publicly disclosed at all. In his own way, Bush stands to advance the cause of legal corruption as much as the groundbreaking work of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign did.

The Bush campaign’s technical innovation is the use of “tracking codes,” to monitor how much money is coming from its big fund-raisers. Though the euphemism sounds as harmless as a Fedex delivery, this practice allows the campaign to stay fully informed about who is giving what. It also appears to stir a sense of competition, if not competitive panic, among Bush’s major contributors and fund-raisers. Here’s a link to a Bush fund-raising letter obtained by Newsweek that shows how the system works. In it, Tom Kuhn, who runs a utility trade association called the Edison Electric Institute, tells recipients of his solicitation to make sure to “incorporate the #1178 tracking number in your fundraising efforts” according to the instructions of Bush’s top fund-raisers, Don Evans and Jack Oliver. Doing so, Kuhn notes, “does ensure that our industry is credited, and that your progress is listed among the other business/industry sectors.”

Pause to consider what is happening here. A trade association that would be allowed to contribute a maximum of only $5,000 through its PAC–not to mention corporations that aren’t legally allowed to contribute at all–are performing an end-run around federal campaign-finance law by bundling a large number of contributions from individual executives. Of course, “bundling” is nothing new. What is new is the Bush’s campaign’s handy-dandy system for sorting out the bundles, so it knows just how much it has gotten from the electric industry–compared with how much it has gotten from lots of other “business/industry sectors,” trade associations, and corporations. (Coming soon: White House officials able to locate your precise up-to-the-minute contribution record using a handheld wireless device.) But more important, communicating the secret pass code ensures that contributors in the electric industry know that the Bush campaign knows how much they’ve given. The only people who don’t know who is really giving how much are the rest of us. The Bush donor database is searchable by individual name, but not by “employer,” or “tracking code.”

The Bush team’s answer to this complaint is that the tracking codes aren’t a way of keeping score or encouraging competition among donors but rather a benign device for making sure that contributors “are not stepping on each other’s toes,” according to Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. McClellan gives the example of three of Bush’s business-school classmates who are raising money. By using a tracking code, the three can avoid bothering classmates who have already given the maximum legal amount.

Though McClellan tried patiently to explain it to me, I can’t for the life of me understand how tracking codes help with the problem of repeat solicitations. Presumably, the three classmates split up the list of Bush’s business-school class and asked everyone for a check. If one of Bush’s b-school classmates had already given $1,000 in his capacity as, say, an electric utility executive, his contribution would have been counted under “#1178” as part of Tom Kuhn’s tally. This notional donor might also want his gift counted as a classmate contribution. But I don’t know how his business-school classmates would find out from having a code of their own that he had already given at the office. Of course, they could find out by searching for his name on the Bush database. But you don’t need any codes for that.

If the codes really are an innocent bookkeeping exercise, there’s any easy way for the Bush campaign to dispel suspicion. They can do what Slate asked them to do yesterday: Release the codes!