Gored by an Old Law

"The Executive Mansion is besieged, if not sacked," a gaggle of critics in the Senate declared, "and its corridors and chambers are crowded each day with the ever-changing, but never-ending, throng."

No, this purplish declaration didn't come from anybody in a lather over the courting of money givers by Bill Clinton's White House. It dates all the way back to a Senate committee's urgent call in 1882 for good-government reforms, one of them a ban on soliciting or receiving any campaign funds on federal property.

The 47th Congress enacted the ban, thus entering into the criminal code the prohibition (18 USC 607), punishable by up to three years in prison, that today's watchdogs say may have been violated by hyperaggressive Clinton campaign fund raisers--the folks who arranged White House coffee klatches, overnight stays and the like.

In a March 3 press conference sparked by a Washington Post story branding him the "solicitor in chief" of the 1996 Clinton campaign, Vice President Al Gore acknowledged making fund-raising calls from his office but insisted he had not broken the law, which, he said, was intended to cover shakedowns of federal employees on government premises.

A few days later, White House officials offered a narrow, legalistic defense when asked about published reports that Margaret A. Williams, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, had accepted a $50,000 political donation from California business executive Johnny Chung in 1995, as he was visiting the White House. The officials said Williams did not "receive" the money--she merely passed it along to the Democratic National Committee.

But others hold a stricter interpretation. In 1995, then-White House counsel Abner Mikva circulated a memo saying "campaign activities of any kind are prohibited in or from government buildings...no fund-raising phone calls or mail may emanate from the White House." Although Gore has suggested that this memo did not apply to him, the law says it's a crime for "any person" to ask for or receive funds on government property, and current Justice Department guidance on the ban says "the employment status of the parties to the solicitation is immaterial."

In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, such dubious practices were routine. It was a time of robber-baron capitalists, of unchecked corruption at all levels of government, "when Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it," as the muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd memorably cracked.

The White House was a primary way station for seekers of plum patronage jobs and cozy contracts. Whether the supplicants got to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom isn't clear, but they were certainly expected to contribute to party coffers. It was a shakedown--not pretty, but, hey, this was the way the Spoils System worked.

The occupant of the White House in 1882 was Chester A. Arthur, the so-called Gentleman Boss, elevated to the Presidency in 1881 after James A. Garfield was assassinated by, yup, a disappointed office seeker. That crazed action finally prodded Congress to crack down on the smelliest customs of the day.

Ohio's Thomas H. Pendleton, chairman of the Senate Committee on Civil Service and Retrenchment, led the charge for change. "The spectacle exhibited of the Chief Magistrate of this great nation, feeding, like a keeper, his flock, the hungry clamorous, crowding, jostling multitude which daily gathers around the dispenser of patronage, is humiliating to the patriotic citizen interested alone in national progress and grandeur," Pendleton's committee declared. The President has "no rest and little time for the transaction of any other business. . . . The necessity of good administration imperatively demands a change."

Today's good-government reformers heartily echo those sentiments. But they've got their work cut out for them. The last time anyone was prosecuted under the ban on soliciting or receiving campaign funds on government property was 1908, when a federal postmaster was charged with raising campaign funds in his office. Still, the prohibition remains on the books. And the folks who enacted it probably wouldn't be shocked by today's tales of money-raising shenanigans. Welcome to America's New Gilded Age.

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