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Skirting the Real Scandal

Monday, April 21 1997; Page A16

The subject that has been most discussed by the politicians thus far this year has been not the budget, nor the state of the economy, nor the various aspects of health care nor peace in the Middle East. It has been campaign finance – and the discussion has been almost entirely fraudulent. It is widely agreed, and rightly so, that we are in the middle of a campaign finance "scandal," and both parties are forced by convention to express their indignation at that. But they are huffing and puffing about a problem that neither is willing to describe accurately – for the good reason that both are complicit in it and have a vested interest in perpetuating precisely what they must denounce. It is like one of those plays in which the characters can't or don't communicate and instead spend their time talking past one another and the truth. The point keeps getting missed – on purpose.

The basic problem is that the cost of conducting a campaign for federal office has been bid up to a point that is destructive of the very democratic process it is said to represent. The cost at both the congressional and presidential levels is obscene. One reason may be that so many of the candidates, lately including those for president, have had so little to say. It's not just TV that's expensive. Blur is expensive. In any case, the candidates and parties increasingly have responded to the cost by overriding or circumventing even the relatively modest set of rules put in place in the 1970s in response to the last great fund-raising scandal, that of the Nixon administration.

The rules imposed then were meant to limit the extent to which offices and office-holders can be bought, but in last year's presidential race, both parties tossed them almost completely out the window. Both pretended to abide by the law while raising money in amounts and from sources that the law forbids, and the amounts were huge. It is hard to decide which was worse, the pretense or the excess. The law is written in such a way that the violators could be fairly confident that they would suffer no penalty; this beat has no real cops.

That is the fundamental scandal that neither party will confront. The president, safely past his last campaign, claims now to want to strengthen a set of rules whose weaknesses he led the way in exploiting. The claim is unconvincing. He converts his own excesses into an agenda. Most of the congressional Democrats don't want to talk about the excess in the system either. In part, they seek to protect the president, in part to protect themselves: What could be so wrong, after all, with a system that elected them? The Republicans have the hardest time of all, because they are the stoutest defenders of the system that they attack the president for having used to such advantage.

Because no one can quite afford to talk about Topic A, they all talk about topics B, C and D: What are the ground rules going to be for the various congressional investigations of the subject? Should or shouldn't the attorney general seek appointment of an independent counsel? The Justice Department says one reason it hasn't gone to such lengths is that so much of the fund-raising at the center of the dispute involved so-called soft money rather than hard, meaning money that went to the Democratic National Committee rather than to the president's campaign organization. The law, the department's career prosecutors say, doesn't apply to soft money, so technically they have no violations to prosecute. And technically that may be so, but of course the point is that in the last campaign the distinction between hard and soft money disappeared. Both parties raised much more hard money than the law allows and merely called it soft to avoid regulation. The Republicans could make that point; it would strengthen their argument for an independent counsel. But they are the last to want soft money regulated. They want a counsel, but not a counsel who might insist on strict enforcement of the campaign finance laws.

The whole question of an independent counsel, and of turning what happened last year into a criminal as distinct from a broader civic offense, is to some extent a red herring. We don't mean to suggest that there ought not be a criminal inquiry, and in fact several are going on. An independent counsel continues to look into the sprawl of issues called Whitewater, including whether an effort was made to buy the silence of possible witness and former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell. A Justice Department task force and congressional committees are looking into the fund-raising squalor. If people committed crimes in the course of that fund-raising, they ought to pay the price, whoever they are. And the truth – the full truth – ought to be extracted from them, whether criminal or not.

But the churning about the lurid particulars of how that money was raised last year ought not be allowed to take the public eye off the broader questions: What do you do about the solicitation system generally? How do you keep electoral outcomes, and the policy outcomes to which they lead, from being bought? The politicians – both parties – are conducting a kind of mock debate about the lesser issues as a diversion and an alternative to dealing with the central one. That's the ultimate scandal, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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