It’s always been hard to figure out what Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri) really believes in. When first elected to Congress in 1976, he was a conservative Democrat — and particularly outspoken in his opposition to abortion. Once he realized his anti-abortion stance would keep him from moving up the Democratic ladder, he became pro-choice. A moderate Democrat in 1985, he moved left for his presidential campaign in 1988. Now, as he unveils his “Families First” legislative plan (a vague, moderate blueprint for a Democratic congressional agenda), Gephardt has assumed another guise — the Comeback Centrist.
In the past few years Gephardt has flipped his positions on Social Security, medical savings accounts, the minimum wage, and a balanced budget. But Gephardt has remained steadfast on one issue: his behind-the-scenes resistance to campaign finance reform.
As the ranking Democrat in the House, Gephardt (like former Speaker Tom Foley before him) has made a career out of looking out for the interests of House Democrats — even when those interests conflict with the public interest. Because Gephardt depends on the House Democratic caucus to advance his ambitions, he almost inevitably panders to the caucus, rather than trying to lead or reform it.
Take campaign finance. Since the current system favors incumbents, few of the House Democrats who have supported Gephardt’s rise to the party leadership have been eager to change it. And what’s bad for the Democratic caucus, notes a White House aide, is “by extension, not good for Gephardt.”
But the main reason Gephardt drags his feet on campaign finance reform is that, even as a member of the minority, he makes out like a bandit under the current system. His campaign has so far sucked in nearly $2 million this election cycle (compared to the paltry $13,085 garnered by his challenger, Deborah Lynn Wheelehan).
Nor has all Gephardt’s money come from traditional Democratic constituencies such as organized labor. In 1995 alone, Gephardt received $82,468 from PACs associated with finance, insurance, and real estate, and $42,808 from PACs associated with lawyers and lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Gephardt is also among the top Democratic recipients of tobacco PAC money, with $13,000 since 1995.
Gephardt uses his leadership PAC, the Effective Government Committee, to share the wealth; for the 1994 election campaign, he handed out $703,596 to other Democrats who had supported his climb up the party ladder.
Gephardt’s voracious fundraising robs him of moral authority on reform issues. Last year, he criticized Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) for passing out PAC checks to lawmakers on the floor of the House. But when a reporter asked if the Democrats had ever done the same when they controlled Congress, a flustered Gephardt hemmed and hawed and refused to answer the question, finally turning the mike over to Rep. Lynn Rivers, a freshman from Michigan, who answered that she had never distributed or taken money on the House floor.
With the Democrats in the minority, this would seem an opportune moment to push for campaign finance reform. “It would be an effective hammer now,” says one Democratic reformer.
But Gephardt’s public assaults on the GOP’s stewardship of the Congress pay only lip service to the idea that the House would be improved by cleaning up campaign financing. Even as he lambastes the Republicans on other issues, Gephardt is relatively quiet on this point; he once ventured that he would support a “commission” to study it.
This reluctance to pursue reform is longstanding. In the spring of 1993, for example, Gephardt helped convene a meeting of fellow Democrats (including Georgia Rep. John Lewis, Michigan Rep. John Dingell, and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro) in order to warn administration officials — notably then-Chief of Staff Mack McLarty — that Clinton’s push for campaign finance reform would hurt Democrats in Congress. As it turned out, the November 1994 elections suggested just the opposite: that the Democrats’ failure to pass campaign reform helped the GOP win Congress.
Campaign finance is not the only issue where Gephardt is torn between what’s good for the Democrats in Congress and what’s good for the country. In early 1994, when President Clinton was pushing for his crime bill — which included the assault weapons ban that the National Rifle Association was desperately fighting — Gephardt went to the White House to urge the president to drop the ban. Why? Because congressional Democrats from conservative districts feared it might hurt their re-election chances. More recently, Gephardt made a similar plea to Clinton not to take on the tobacco industry for the same reason. In both cases, Clinton ignored Gephardt’s advice, leading to two of his most politically popular — and meaningful –efforts.
The Republicans’ current lack of popularity is largely a result of their failure to follow through on their promise to reform the way Congress does business. But Gephardt doesn’t seem to have learned from the GOP’s mistake: In his much-touted “Families First” agenda, there’s not a single mention of campaign finance.
Gephardt and the Democrats may retake the House in November’s elections. But a Gephardt-led House that shuns campaign reform will not be led by Gephardt — or the Democrats — for long.