Reform Groups Ask McCain, Obama to Promise to Reject Soft Money if Elected, Limit Appointment of Fundraisers

Sept. 17, 2008 

Reform Groups Ask McCain, Obama to Promise to Reject Soft Money if Elected, Limit Appointment of Fundraisers

Next President Should Ban Soft Money for Inauguration and Convention; Forgo Presidential Library Fundraising Until Term Ends

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A coalition of government watchdog organizations today sent letters to Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama urging each candidate to promise that, if elected, he will take steps to limit the influence of special interests in his administration.

Specifically, the groups ask each candidate to: 1) reject soft money for his inauguration and instruct his party to do so for the 2012 convention; 2) not appoint fundraisers to ambassadorships, transition team positions or other important government posts, except for rare exceptions involving unusually qualified individuals; and 3) forgo fundraising for a presidential library until after he leaves the White House.

The newly elected president will have the power to take each of these steps to limit the influence of special interests. The watchdog groups support additional reforms that will require legislation, such as the creation of viable public funding systems for congressional and presidential elections.

The letters were signed by representatives from Common Cause, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

Inaugurations, conventions and presidential libraries have a history of attracting massive soft money (corporate, union and unlimited individual contributions) while big donors often have ended up in influential or prestigious jobs. Among the issues the letters address:

Conventions. Federal law calls for the provision of grants to finance conventions ($16.4 million for both major parties in 2008) but forbids the parties from accepting additional money for their conventions. The Federal Election Commission created a loophole for private contributions in 1977 when it began permitting limited soft money contributions to be spent on activities promoting the host city. Between 1980 and 1992, private contributions supporting the Democratic and Republican conventions never exceeded $8.4 million, combined. But private contributions leaped to $38 million in 1996 and $142.6 million in 2004, while the spending shifted almost entirely to promoting the presidential candidates and their political parties, not the host cities. Corporations, unions and wealthy individuals poured at least $112 million into the recent conventions.

Inaugurations. President Bush’s 2005 inaugural committee raised $42.8 million, most of it from major corporations and lobbying firms. Although the committee set a $250,000 limit, at least two donors – Ameriquest and Marriott International – skirted the limit by making contributions through subsidiaries. At least 37 other corporations and individuals contributed $250,000 each. It is possible to hold an inaugural celebration without soft money. President Clinton’s 1997 inaugural committee did not accept corporate contributions but raised $23.7 million, primarily through ticket sales ranging from $10 for a parade to $3,000 for a gala.

Appointments. At least 168 of President Bush’s elite fundraisers have received appointments to Cabinet positions (five), ambassadorships (48), transition team positions (43) or other government posts (88). (Numbers add up to more than 168 because some people received more than one appointment.)

Presidential libraries. Although Clinton has not disclosed the identities of those who financed his $165 million library in Little Rock, Ark., $10 million reportedly was furnished by the Saudi royal family. Fundraising for Clinton’s library was embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that it had received $450,000 from Denise Rich, former wife of fugitive Marc Rich, whom Clinton pardoned on his final day in office. The library of George H.W. Bush at Texas A&M University also received large contributions from foreign entities, including the governments of Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, as well as the family of former Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan. The fundraising effort for President George W. Bush’s library recently was caught up in controversy after The Times of London revealed a secretly videotaped conversation in which elite Bush fundraiser Stephen Payne said he could help arrange meetings between the exiled former president of Kyrgyzstan and top Bush administration officials. Payne recommended that the former leader’s “family, children, whatever, should probably look at making a contribution to the Bush library … It would be like, maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or something like that, not a huge amount but enough to show that they’re serious.” Payne raised at least $100,000 for Bush in 2000 and at least $200,000 in 2004. Bush, who once said he would probably accept foreign money for his library, has since said through a spokesman that he will not accept such contributions until after he leaves office.

READ the the McCain letter.

READ the Obama letter.  

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