Posted on January 13, 1997 in Washington Watch

Last week Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-GA) was voted Speaker of the House of Representatives, the most powerful position in the U.S. Congress. His reelection to this post makes him the first Republican to serve consecutive terms as Speaker in almost 70 years.

Next week Bill Clinton will be inaugurated and begin his second term as President of the United States. In doing so, he becomes the first Democrat in over 50 years to win consecutive elections for President.

Both represent historic and significant personal accomplishments and yet both have been tarnished by scandal. Coupled with the formal celebrations and ceremonies that traditionally accompany the inauguration of a President and the swearing in of the new Congress, the coming weeks will also witness several more somber events.

The Supreme Court will have arguments as to whether or not a sitting President can be tried on allegations of sexual harassment.

The Congressional Ethnics Committee will release its report on charges against the Speaker and recommendations as to how the Congress ought to act on those charges.

The Congress will then hold hearings on the Speaker’s behavior, then the full Congress will debate the charges against the Speaker, and finally, a vote will be taken to determine whether or not to punish the Speaker.

The Senate will begin hearings on the campaign finance irregularities that have been reported to have been carried out by the President’s reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

And sometime soon it is expected that indictments will be forthcoming from the Independent Counsel charged with investigating the Whitewater issue and a series of other scandals that plagued the first term of the Clinton Administration.

So instead of joy there are clouds hanging over both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic street that runs through the heart of Washington connecting the White House with Capitol Hill, the seat of the Congress.

Not only will these developments be traumatic for the nation, they also represent personal tragedy for two great leaders.

As the personal biographies of both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich demonstrate, each has spent a lifetime in the effort to achieve national leadership. Despite deep ideological differences, both Clinton and Gingrich share a great deal in common. Both have risen from modest means, both have endured personal hardship and bitter political defeat. And yet both were driven by an intellectual vision and a political will to succeed—and both did in fact succeed.

It is therefore painful to see their crowning moments mired in controversy.

It is ironic that while there are differences in some of the problems plaguing each of these leaders, campaign finance issues are central to their most serious and recent difficulties. This is ironic because, it was jus a few years ago that both Clinton and Gingrich met in New Hampshire, shook hands, and pledged to work together to achieve real campaign finance reform.

That reform did not come. The 1996 Presidential and Congressional elections were the costliest in history. Well over $1.5 billion was spent, with $660 million going to Senate and Congressional races. The rest was spent by the two Presidential campaigns, the two parties, and major issue groups who spent millions to influence the election.

Gingrich set a record raising over $6.3 million in winning his Congressional race—that is the most ever spent on a Congressional seat. The Democratic Party raised over $250 million and the Republican party over $400 million—also records for money raised and spent by the two parties.

Gingrich has been cited for offenses by the House Ethics Committee on seven occasions. He was also formally rebuked by the Committee in 1995 for “conspiring to exploit his office for personal gain,” when he agreed to receive a $4.5 million advance for a book he was preparing to write.

While the formal report by the Congress is not yet out, it appears that this time Gingrich has been charged with using monies from a non-profit tax exempt group he founded for political purposes. This would be a violation of tax laws. At the same time Gingrich will be charged with not telling the truth about these activities in his testimony to Congress.

The most recent charges facing the White House and the DNC that will be the subject of hearings involve clearly illegal contributions received (though some have since been refunded) by the DNC and the role that the President and Vice President played in indirectly soliciting those funds.

It appears that the President and Vice President held scores of dinners and private meetings with questionable figures solely in order to raise funds. In some cases, these individuals were not U.S. citizens. Since they could not contribute, contributions made by their business subsidiaries or associates in the U.S. shortly after the meetings have raised questions.

And the practice of inviting large donors to spend a night as a guest in the White House has been described by both Republicans and Democrats alike as tantamount to renting out the White House to political contributors.

It is obvious that the campaign finance system is out of control and that there have been serious abuses by both parties (there has not yet been full scrutiny of the $400 million raised by the RNC). And it is equally obvious that when operating in a broken system, when individuals are driven to win, though motivated by the best of political intentions, there will be infractions.

Republicans have been in the minority of Congress for decades, a situation Gingrich was determined to end.

His infraction of the law and campaign finance requirements were done in an effort to change the political discourse in the U.S., to educate the public about Republican ideals, and to build a grass roots base that would elect Republicans to Congress.

His plan worked. Republicans won—but the infractions have tarnished his victory.

Similarly, Bill Clinton ended a twelve year long Democratic exclusion from the White House. Despite a tremendous defeat in the 1994 Congressional elections, Clinton and his party were determined to fight harder and take the White House in 1996. They knew they would be outspent by Republicans —but they were determined to close the gap. In fact, it was their determination coupled with a lack of vigilance that has contributed to turning a victory into a nightmare of embarrassing revelations of illegal contributions.

There is an additional degree of irony in these developments. On the political level it appears that there may be for the first time in many years, a real sense of bi-partisanship on several key issues facing the country. Both Republican and Democrats appear to agree that it is necessary to avoid partisan division on issues like balancing the budget and achieving tax cuts for middle class Americans. There has also been renewed discussion of working toward a bipartisan approach to real campaign finance reform.

Will this political desire to achieve bipartisan results withstand the pressures that will derive from the partisan fights that will soon engulf the Speaker and the President? What will set the agenda and determine the priorities of Republicans and Democrats during the next year—the need to cooperate to make progress in resolving issues like the budget and campaign reform, or the desire to exact retribution and seek advantage from each others problems?

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