Republican Hearings? Partisan Stunt

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's decision to drop hearings on the fundraising scandal in favor of a "public-policy phase" sent the hearings back into television oblivion last night. But the networks have been clear on their interpretation of the hearings: if liberal campaign finance "reform" doesn't pass, then the hearings will be a failure. Oversight of fundraising abuses by the executive branch, from the selling of foreign policy to the selling of the executive mansion, was never the point. [See box.]

The colorful testimony of Roger Tamraz ("a walking ad for campaign reform," said CBS) allowed them to make their point, but when Warren Meddoff appeared Friday to offer testimony unfavorable to Democrats, coverage thinned again.

Meddoff underlined how President Clinton responded to an offer of a $5 million contribution, asking for another business card for his aides, and the subsequent request of Harold Ickes, running the campaign and the DNC from the White House, that Meddoff shred a memo telling him that $5 million could be sent to pro-Democratic front groups. Shocking revelations? NBC skipped them. ABC offered a 20-second anchor brief to the shredding allegation: "Mr. Ickes, he was told, told him to destroy the documents. Mr. Ickes says he does not remember that."

Only CBS devoted a full story to Meddoff, but at the end, Schieffer noted Ickes would not testify for a while, since the Thompson committee dropped its investigative phase in favor of hearing "reform" proposals. He then noted the donnybrook over a bill "didn't bother the Republican leader at all." Schieffer asked Majority Leader Trent Lott: "So if it doesn't come up this session, it's not really going to bother you?" Lott responded: "No. It will come up eventually." Schieffer concluded his story: "So for all the noise these hearings have produced, it looks tonight as if nothing will happen, this year anyway, to change any of it."

What all of the networks ignored was only hinted at in Schieffer's report, where he noted Ickes faxed Meddoff "a list of Democratic Party-supported organizations that Meddoff's client could give money to and qualify for the tax deductions he was seeking."

When the Meddoff story first surfaced in February, the Los Angeles Times reported that then-White House aide Alexis Herman helped arrange a White House reception where Clinton would honor the efforts of Vote Now '96, run by Democratic fundraisers in Miami and focused on "black communities that tend to...vote overwhelm-ingly Democratic."

Another tax-exempt nonprofit, the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, bragged of its partisan agenda to reporters. The group's executive director, James Ferguson, told the Baltimore Sun in January 1996 that his group "targeted 83 House districts that African American voters can help elect Democrats - enough to wrest control of the House away from the GOP."

What makes these groups that Schieffer called "Democratic-supported" so interesting is that they are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) groups - which are barred from advocating the specific election of candidates or parties. The networks found these distinctions fascinating when the special counsel investigating Newt Gingrich fined the Speaker $300,000 insisting Gingrich benefited politically from the 501(c)(3) groups that funded his college course, which included no advocacy of candidates or parties.

The networks did provide a mini-burst of reporting when Attorney General Janet Reno decided to include President Clinton in her investigation of fundraising phone calls from the White House. Most focused on the "arcane and archaic" law against fundraising on federal property. The spurt of interest evaporated Tuesday morning. But none of the reporters are echoing their when-will-Gingrich-go line with the question of when the President and Vice President will have the decency to resign for abusing IRS guidelines or many other laws.

Auditing the IRS. One set of Senate hearings did capture network attention last night: the Senate Finance Committee's oversight hearings on the Internal Revenue Service, which led all three network newscasts. ABC and NBC presented a balance of reports, but CBS underlined the hearings as a partisan stunt.

Dan Rather declared: "This was opening day on Capitol Hill for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, sure to score points with the voting public. The subject was alleged abuse of power by agents of the Internal Revenue Service portrayed as wreaking havoc on the lives and wallets of ordinary citizens powerless to fight back. CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer has more about the IRS and the politics of bashing the tax man."

Schieffer emphasized the Republicans were simply scoring political points: "In letters, Senate Republican Leader Lott has been soliciting party campaign contributions by saying the money will help in the fight to 'end the IRS as we know it,' which left a Democrat wondering if the hearings had a political purpose." Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nevada) told viewers: "As pollster Frank Luntz points out in his widely distributed memo to Republican members of Congress, nothing guarantees more applause and support than the call to abolish the Internal Revenue Service."

Schieffer returned to the point today in the floating first-hour newscast on This Morning [see box]. In the second hour, he underlined it again: "Republican pollsters have been telling Republicans the best way to raise campaign donations is to bash the IRS." Then he was asked to repeat himself by host Jane Robelot: "Bob, is anybody coming to the defense of the IRS? Are Democrats standing up for them?" Replied Schieffer: "Well, as we just said in the piece, some Democrats wonder if they [the IRS] are being used as a whipping boy by the Republicans, who are trying to raise money." The Clinton administration's effort to pass a nationalized health-care plan was a blatant attempt to win over voters, and was surely highlighted in Democratic fundraising letters. Democratic-run hearings were used to build support for the Clinton plan. But we don't remember CBS calling all that a political stunt.

Also missing in all of the IRS coverage was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's parliamentary maneuver yesterday to shut down most committee work, including the IRS hearings, by invoking a rarely used rule to protest actions by the Republican majority. After years of harping on the politically disastrous moves toward a government shutdown - and after very recent declarations that GOP Sen. Jesse Helms' denial of committee hearings on William Weld as the work of a "dictator" (NBC's David Bloom, ABC's Sam Donaldson) or a "terrorist" roughly comparable to Hamas suicide bombers (ABC's George Stephanopoulos) - the over-sight of this little shutdown shows a clear double standard.

Partisan stunts seem only to occur when the ideas presented curtail the power of government. On last night's World News Tonight, ABC anchor Peter Jennings returned to cheerleading for new regulations on political fundraisers and interest groups: "Just before we leave Washington, something else of importance to all of us. It looks like there's going to be a debate and a vote on campaign finance reform after all. Republicans and Democrats, including the President, appear to have worked it out today so that the full Senate will debate and vote on campaign finance reform by the end of the year."

When Jennings asked Cokie Roberts if "some measure of campaign finance reform would pass," Roberts replied: "My gut says no, but...if the answer is yes, and all they do is outlaw this so-called soft money, then they really have accomplished something." In other words, how encouraging it is that the media can help translate liberal misdeeds into more liberal legislation. - Tim Graham