Gore’s Phone Calls: Already Cleared

Charles Tiefer served in the Senate and House counsels' offices from 1979 to 1995. He is an associate professor of legislation at the University of Baltimore Law School, and the author of "Congressional Practice and Procedure" (Greenwood Press, 1989)

The fuss being raised by Vice President Al Gore’s political adversaries over his fund-raising calls from the White House just revisits a matter previously checked and properly cleared by the Justice Department. And Atty. Gen. Janet Reno hasn’t put Gore at serious risk by ordering a reinvestigation. The supposedly new ingredient consists of the designation of some campaign contributions by the Democratic National Committee’s bookkeepers. When the Justice Department lawyers finish their second look, they will conclude, as they did last April 14, that Gore’s calls violated no law.

Washington’s worst-kept secret is that wherever our elected leaders happen to find themselves, they make calls to contributors to cover the expense of political advertising. President Reagan made calls from the White House to Republican Eagles fund-raisers, and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal in 1995 that he did his dialing, with no qualms, from his home, his car and his Senate office. During my years serving as congressional counsel, I read the Senate Ethics Manual consistently to signal to senators like Gramm that they broke no statute by making such calls.

Gore’s phone calls are being scrutinized in light of an 1883 federal statute that prohibits soliciting contributions “in any room or building” occupied by federal employees at work. The statute, closely tied to the civil service laws, was intended to prevent solicitation of federal employees where they work and are paid, a practice in crude patronage machines like Chicago’s. What Congress cared about was the location of those getting tapped. Requesting donations from faraway targets had less possibility of being perceived as intimidation.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the most scholarly source on this subject, wrote years ago and reiterated in a report issued last month: “In more than 100 years since its enactment, however, the law appears to have been neither specifically construed by any court nor applied in any prosecution to cover one who solicits a campaign contribution from federal building by letter or telephone to persons who are not located themselves in a federal building.”


What of the new ingredient: how the Democratic National Committee handled the accounting for the contributions that came in after Gore’s calls?

Here’s what testimony at recent hearings indicates, cutting through the partisan hyperbole, and what the Justice Department will now verify:

Since a 1979 election law change, presidential election-related fund-raising has shifted from “hard money,” usable for all campaign purposes but with caps on contribution size, to “soft money,” which has no such caps.

Gore didn’t know, and would have no reason to know, how the money he raised would be processed by the DNC finance department. That office was responding to complex Federal Election Commission formulas on how to pay for traditional “soft money” activities like generic non-campaign advertising. The 1990 FEC regulations state that funds spent on such purposes should come from a mix of “soft money” and “hard money” accounts. So the DNC accountants allocated the contributions sought by Gore, and intended by the contributors, for “soft” purposes by putting them in a mix of the two kinds of accounts, using a formula they thought to be FEC-approved.

Whatever the outcome of the accounting dispute, it has nothing to do with Gore and the 1883 law, under which he acted legally and appropriately.