THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON POLITICAL REFORM
The Oval Office
2:15 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. I have just finished a very productive and stimulating meeting with two outstanding Americans, John Gardner and Doris Kearns Goodwin. In the best tradition of our citizenship, they have set aside their very busy lives and concerns and work to take some time to come to Washington to try to help make political reform a reality.
We discussed how the trust of the American people has been eroded by what they see in Washington, by how the lobbyists hold sway more today than ever before. And the American people don't like it. The hardworking American families of this country know that they did not pay for the kind of influence that they see exercised too often in today's Congress.
When Congress treats telecommunications reform, for example, merely as a joust among would-be monopolists, ordinary consumers lose out. When the NRA hijacks a congressional hearing process, crime victims and police officers lose out. And everybody knows that last week's vote in the House to dramatically undermine our ability to enforce our environmental laws would not have happened if real campaign finance reform and real lobbying reform would have been on the books.
For too long these issues have been mired in partisan in-fighting and paralyzed by special interest. We have an obligation to act when we can to move beyond partisanship. I had hoped we had reached such a point several weeks ago in New Hampshire when I shook hands with Speaker Gingrich on a proposal made to us by an ordinary American in the audience that we create a political reform commission that would work more or less like the Base Closing Commission to make recommendations on campaign finance reform and lobbying reform.
Shortly after I returned from New Hampshire, I sent the Speaker a letter putting forward my ideas on how to do that. That moment of optimism gave way to five weeks of silence. When I asked John Gardner and Doris Kearns Goodwin to help me make this happen, I certainly hoped that the respect and eminence that they bring to this process would help move things forward. If there were a commission these are the kinds of people I would appoint to it.
We continue to hope that the Speaker will live up to his handshake and move forward on this commission. But we shouldn't wait and Congress shouldn't either.
Today I am announcing that I will use the power of my office to bring the sunlight of full disclosure to the lobbying process in Washington. Right now lobbyists can operate in secret. They can lawfully conceal who they work for, what loopholes or contracts or regulations they are seeking to pass, or what actions they are seeking to stop. And lobbying of the Executive Branch isn't disclosed at all.
Last week an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the United States Senate voted for lobbying reform. But the House leadership has made it clear that they will not even schedule a vote on this measure for quite a long while. Delay, debate and division, that's the same old thing. They won't put lobbyists in their proper place in our governmental structure.
So today I have decided to act on my own within my executive authority. I am requesting the Attorney General to prepare an executive order that would bar Executive Branch employees from meeting with any lobbyist who does not fully disclose his or her activities to the public. In other words, if lobbyists want to contact the Executive Branch, fine, they can. That's an important part of our work here. But they can do it only if they tell the public who they are, what they're working on, how much they're spending and what policy they are pushing or trying to block. We will, in other words, follow the strict and meaningful standards of the Senate bill. From now on, the Executive Branch will operate as if the Senate bill had become law.
I have now acted on lobby reform. Now there is no excuse for congressional delay. The Senate has done its work. I urge the House to finish the job. This is really a moment for real bipartisan progress on political reform.
In recent days strong and often growing bipartisan majorities in the United States Senate have voted to preserve, first of all, public funding of presidential campaigns -- something John Gardner here did so much to create -- to schedule a vote on campaign finance reform over the objection of the Senate Majority Leader; and to pass a tough gift and lobby reform program in the Senate.
This bipartisan impulse is our best hope for true and lasting reform. But to get there it will have to spread to the House, which has been moving back into the past, not going forward into the future. That is our challenge today.
From the reform victories of the turn of the century progresses to the changes that followed Watergate, moments of national renewal have always called forth people of goodwill, regardless of party, who were willing to do what it takes to change things for the better. This is part of our national history, and it must be part of our common ground.
I call on Congress to join us here to pass lobby reform and campaign finance reform, to do it in a bipartisan way, and to restore the public trust. In the meanwhile, I am going to establish lobby reform in the Executive Branch by enacting by executive order the bill passed by the United States Senate.
I'd like now to invite John Gardner and Doris Kearns Goodwin to say a few words.
MR. GARDNER: I'll be very brief. I've -- as everyone knows, I have felt for some years that campaign finance reform was the most serious problem facing government. It's a cancer eating at the vitals of our government. Americans have always believed in the consent of the governed. It now looks as though we're talking about the consent of the donors. Is that what we really wanted? That's what we've got.
For many members of Congress, the present system is a kind of fatal addiction. They can't break the addiction, though they have seen the polls showing the public confidence in Congress going lower and lower into the sub-basement. They know that such public cynicism is a danger to the Congress, it's a danger to the country. Oklahoma City was a fire bell in the night. But many members of Congress cannot break the addiction.
That is why the handshake is so important. It may herald a break in this situation. Republicans and Democrats must act together and they must act in this session. The time has run out.
MS. KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I feel like the rookie in comparison to John Gardner who has spent so much of his life on this issue. There's no question that once you start thinking about it you realize that the soaring power of money within our political process is one of the most damaging forces in our national life. Talk to any politician and you'll hear the complaint that they must spend half their time, half the public's time, raising money, for, as they would say, distasteful as it is, money translates into votes, which is the lifeblood of any politician.
Moreover, the more expensive campaigning becomes, the more money is needed. In the overwhelming number of cases, this money does not come from the average American citizen, but rather from business, from organizations, from individuals with money for whom the contribution is nothing less than an investment with an expected return.
To be sure, the politicians profess to care about all their constituents. But no politician has time for everyone. It's always a question of priorities, and money establishes those priorities. Money gets the individuals into the door. Money revises legislation. Money restrain the enforcement of laws. Money has a direct impact on the substance of almost every piece of legislation.
It is little wonder, the more I think about it, that our citizens are disenchanted with politics and government. This process has corrupted both parties. It has been there for a long time, probably reaching a stage now never before seen. Politicians, I think, persistently underestimate the intelligence and instincts of the American citizens who are fully aware of the corrupting power and influence of money, and, therefore, feel disenchanted from having any impact on the political system. Politicians know the system stinks; the people know the system stinks. And yet, as John said, there's a fatal addiction that prevents anything from turning it around.
My only hope in being part of this effort right now to make good on this handshake that the President and Mr. Gingrich took in New Hampshire is that by having some sort of commission that's outside the system pushing in from the outside, it may be our only chance to start turning the country around and letting democracy get back on its head in the right way.
Q Mr. President, the Speaker today said that the reason he hasn't responded to the handshake is because his priority now is saving Medicare and that you're not doing anything to save Medicare and why not focus in on that as an issue instead of political and campaign finance reform.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, it takes no energy at all. He doesn't have to do anything in the Congress right now. All he has to do is to do what he said he'd do when he shook hands with me -- let's set up a commission. He can make his appointments, Senator Dole can make his appointments, I'll make my appointments and Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt can make their appointments, and then let the commission go do its work. That is not a persuasive reason. There is nothing to do. That takes about two or three hours of staff time and about 30 minutes of his time.
So -- and let's say this. Our administration has made the Medicare Trust Fund better. Their Medicare cuts are not necessary either to fix the Trust Fund or to balance the budget. Over half of their Medicare cuts -- or roughly half of them -- are increased costs to beneficiaries of Medicare which will not put one red cent into the Medicare Trust Fund. That is not what this is about.
We have shown you can balance the budget without hurting people on Medicare. And that's what I think the Speaker and the majority in the House and the Senate ought to say they want to do. And when they say that, we can resolve further problems with the Medicare Trust Fund. I have shown I'm willing to deal with that. I proposed some savings to help deal with that.
This is not about the Medicare Trust Fund. This is about whether these beneficiaries are going to be soaked for no good reason.
Q Mr. President, why not take the same kind of unilateral action on campaign finance reform as you seem to be doing on lobbying reform, say, with respect to soft money donations to the party? And does the party understand fully, sir, your feelings about them selling access to you to big money donors?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, and we changed that. And we can change that. And I have no problem changing that. That is wrong.
I think -- by the way, I think that the President and that any other person in public office ought to meet with his or her supporters, including financial supporters. I think that's important. I would do that anyway. I have always done that, from the time I was Attorney General of my state I have done that. But it is wrong to raise money on the promise of guaranteed specific kinds of access. That is wrong, and we are -- stopped that.
Now, the difference is, I can do this lobby reform and hold the Executive Branch to a higher standard and challenge the Congress to follow suit in a way that does not in any way undermine the public interest. But if I hold the Democrats to a standard which in effect paralyzes them financially, in comparison to the Republicans, I will be punishing the very public interest that I seek to advance because it will make it less likely that there will be competitive elections.
The American people's only chance to make the right choices is when there are genuine competitive elections. I would love nothing better -- if I could get an agreement with the Republican Party we could shut this whole thing down tomorrow. We could, by mutual agreement, at least change the party rules on campaign finance reform. And if they would do it, we could do it and we wouldn't have to wait for Congress to act.
Q You mentioned the telecommunications bill, sir. Have the changes that have been made to it today made it any more acceptable to you?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I want to wait and see what happens. I know that they acted to try to stop one person from being able to own television stations, newspapers, radios and cable networks in the same market. That was a very important step forward. I congratulate the House on that. Did the V-chip amendment pass? They're working on that. That's also very important to me.
As you know, I issued a letter on the House bill which was changed markedly after it came out of committee -- that's a very unusual procedure -- setting forth the concerns that I have, the Vice President shares, our administration has. We'll just have to review the bill when it gets in its final form.
Q What about the war in Croatia? Are you concerned that that could spread into an all-out war in the Balkans?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes -- well, I'm concerned that it could spread the war in Bosnia and in the Croatia-Serbia area.
Let me just back up and say the Croatian offensive originally was launched in response to the Serb attack on Bihac, one of the protected areas. And it has largely, apparently, relieved a lot of pressure on Bihac. But because it is so comprehensive, it runs the risk of a wider war. And that is what we have cautioned against in our contacts with the Croats.
Q So, Mr. President, you're saying that the actual offensive is justified?
THE PRESIDENT: I explained that the original Croatian action, which we were told by the Croatian government they would feel compelled to take, was animated by the Serbian attack on Bihac. But we have asked them to exercise real restraint because we are very concerned about a wider war.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:33 P.M. EDT