WASHINGTON — Responding to rising public distress about ethics in government, President Bush plans to unveil a package of campaign reform proposals Thursday coupled with a new push for a federal pay raise, he said Tuesday.
In a press conference Tuesday morning, the President also offered his first comments on Washington's latest ethics investigation, the widening scandal over influence peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Ronald Reagan Administration.
"We are going to do everything we can to clean up any cronyism or see that matters of that nature not recur," Bush said, but he refused to assign blame to former HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. or to close Bush associates who have been implicated in the affair, saying that he does not want to "jump at conclusions as to what guilt is and what it isn't."
Decided Against Legislation
In a wide-ranging discussion of domestic policy issues, the President also said that he has decided against any legislative move to restore affirmative action protections that were cut back by the Supreme Court in recent decisions.
"Legislation isn't necessary," Bush said, citing an analysis of the cases given to him by Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh. Although civil rights groups have attacked the court's decisions as major blows to affirmative action plans, Bush said that he views the court's actions as simply interpretations of "technical" provisions of the law.
Bush also reiterated his opposition to Democratic-backed child care legislation. But he stopped short of directly threatening to veto the Democratic plan, known as the Act for Better Child Care, which has passed the Senate and is likely to come up later this year in the House. Bush is backing a rival proposal that would provide tax credits to low-income families.
In discussing his campaign reform proposals, Bush said that he also plans to call for an increase in pay for judges and executive branch employees with specialized training, such as researchers at the National Institutes of Health, but not an increase for Congress, the subject of intense public opposition earlier this year.
"There will be some specific recommendations with amounts," on a pay raise, he said. The statement surprised top aides, who had expected Bush only to offer a general endorsement of a pay increase, rather than a specific plan. Bush repeatedly has said that he would like to see Congress pass a pay increase for judges and some executive branch officials and that while he favors some kind of an increase for Congress, he would prefer to see that politically difficult issue handled separately.
New Restrictions on PACs
On campaign reform, meanwhile, Bush's plan is expected to center around new restrictions on donations by political action committees. Under the plan, corporations and labor unions no longer would be allowed to use money from their general treasuries to pay the costs of running a PAC. All the costs of a PAC would have to be taken from members' contributions.
Under that plan, most corporate and union PACs would be likely to dissolve, while free-standing ideological PACs, which have no source of funds other than member contributions, would be likely to continue operating.
Because the vast bulk of PAC contributions go to incumbents, most of whom are Democrats, Democratic leaders were quick to say that Bush's plan is as much a political attack as an effort at reform. The plan is likely to include several other provisions aimed at key sources of Democratic money, including a proposal to require labor unions to disclose how much they spend on telephone banks and other get-out-the-vote efforts that generally benefit Democratic candidates. The disclosures could give GOP candidates ammunition to use against labor-backed Democrats.
"I would be outraged by a suggestion of that nature," Bush said with a broad smile when asked about partisan considerations in drafting his plan. Leading Republicans, however, conceded that partisan advantage had played a major role.
"This is an insider issue," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has led GOP campaign reform efforts in the Senate. "Each side knows how the bread is buttered and both would love to have the power to write the rules to get the other side. But we have the power to make sure they don't do it to us, and they have the power to make sure we don't do it to them."
But, McConnell said, while there are several issues on which Democrats and Republicans are irreconcilably opposed, there are several on which agreement is possible. Bush's proposal, he said, could be the opening step in an effort to reach such a compromise.
A senior aide to a key Senate Democrat made a similar point. White House involvement in campaign reform is "a positive sign" that should speed negotiations, he said. "At least the dialogue has been reopened."