In the presidential campaign, Bill Bradley and John McCain have both made an issue of Al Gore’s role in the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. What exactly did Gore do?
Two separate criticisms have been leveled at the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. The first accuses the campaign of “selling access” by using the White House and the institutions of government to raise money. The second accuses the campaign of turning a blind eye toward an illegal scheme by the Chinese government to influence the 1996 election. (See these earlier Explainers: “Is It Illegal To Do Favors for Campaign Donors?” And “Has the Chinese Spy Story Fizzled?“)
Underlying both criticisms is the increased role that so-called “soft money” played in the 1996 campaign. Soft money is raised and spent by the national committees of the two major political parties instead of by individual candidates. Because the campaign-finance laws don’t apply, soft money can be (and frequently is) donated in amounts as large as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Theoretically, soft money is not used for electioneering but for “party-building activities” such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, but in reality the parties coordinate the use of soft money with campaigns to help specific candidates get elected.
The other major loophole in the campaign-finance laws concerns money given to (supposedly) independent groups, which run so-called “issue ads.” As long as these ads do not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate (avoiding words such as “vote for” or “vote against” Candidate X), legal limits don’t apply.
In 1996, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign brought these two loopholes together by running issue ads sponsored by the DNC and funded by soft money. The Republican National Committee and the Dole campaign did the same, creating an enormous demand for soft money on the part of both major parties. (In 1992, the parties raised $75 million in soft money for the presidential campaign; in 1996, they raised $263.5 million.)
Both parties sold access to candidates and party officials in exchange for large soft-money donations. Donors who gave $100,000 to the DNC were allowed to meet with party officials to discuss issues, and those who gave $100,000 to the RNC could attend national and regional meetings with the Republican leadership. But because the Democrats possessed the White House and its fund-raising potential, and because the president and vice president were personally involved in the fund raising (and because the Republicans control the investigative powers of Congress), the Clinton-Gore campaign came under more scrutiny than the Dole-Kemp campaign.
Several criticisms are aimed directly at Gore:
Gore made 56 phone calls from White House offices to solicit campaign contributions of up to $100,000 a piece. Those calls appeared to violate the Pendleton Act, a 1882 law prohibiting federal employees from raising money on federal property. Although the law is rarely enforced, members of Congress do routinely step across the street to party offices when they dial for dollars. At a press conference defending his actions, Gore used the now-famous phrase “no controlling legal authority” seven times to defend his actions. Gore said he thought he was raising soft money, to which the Pendleton Act didn’t apply. In fact, the money was allocated as two-thirds soft and one-third hard. Republicans demanded an independent counsel investigation. But Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that with no evidence that Gore was lying, there was no case for prosecution. [This item was changed on February 18 to correct an error of fact. The writer confused the Pendleton Act with the Hatch Act.]
Gore hosted 23 coffees for wealthy donors in the White House Map Room, and he joined Clinton at another eight. In the 18 months before the campaign, the White House held 103 coffees for supporters, elected officials, and large donors. No money was solicited at the coffees, and no price was put on the invitation, but those who attended had donated a total of $27 million to the DNC. Face time with the vice president or even the president, and White House visits for occasions like state dinners are common perks for contributors used by both parties when they possess the keys. But critics argue that Clinton and Gore took access to new extremes with events such as these coffees and the notorious Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.
In April 1996, Gore attended an event at the Hsi Lai Temple in the Hacienda Heights suburb of Los Angeles. At the Buddhist temple, $140,000 was raised for the DNC. It is illegal for nonprofit institutions to host political fund-raisers. Gore initially said he thought the event was for “community outreach,” though he later acknowledged knowing it was “finance-related.” The DNC returned $65,000 of the money raised at the event, believing it possibly came from foreign sources, which is also illegal. In all, the DNC returned $3 million to 1996 donors that was suspected to come from foreign sources.
After the 1996 election, Federal Election Commission auditors ruled that both parties had illegally coordinated campaign spending with supposedly independent–and therefore unregulated–expenditures. They recommended that the Dole campaign should have to return $17.7 million of federal matching funds and that the Clinton campaign should have to return $7 million. But the FEC rejected their recommendation.
The two parties are expected to raise at least $500 million in soft money for the 2000 election cycle.
Explainer thanks Don Simon, general counsel for Common Cause, and Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics.