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Both Ways on Campaign Finance

Thursday, August 7, 1997; Page A22

The politicians keep trying to have it both ways on campaign finance. The president is in the lead. He claimed again yesterday to want a strengthening of the regulatory system whose weaknesses he himself did so much in the last campaign to exploit. That's fair enough if this time he actually puts his shoulder to the wheel; he's said the same thing before and not done much about it.

But the president doesn't just deplore the system. On alternate occasions he continues also to defend it, or at least his own participation in it. In one paragraph he will toll the dangers of precisely the kind of fund-raising in which he engaged last year. In the next he will defend what he and others did in his behalf, say he is proud of it – and claim that if anything went wrong it was not in the White House or his campaign organization but in the Democratic National Committee, as if the DNC had been some kind of separate entity instead of the clear extension of the White House apparatus that everyone understands it to have been.

He tried the innocent-by-organization-chart defense again on Monday. "The first time I found out that the Democratic Party had taken any money that was not from American citizens, I was sick at heart, and I was angry that the checking hadn't been" done by the DNC, he said in an interview, as if the DNC people and his own people hadn't been the same – and as if he himself had not been the main one driving the party to raise the money and leave the niceties aside. He dusted off what you might call the volumetric defense as well. "I was angry because it gave the party, I think, an unfair image. After all, this was, what, 1 1/2 percent of the total money they raised?" (And who were "they," anyway?) "What about the other 98 1/2 percent of the money that was raised that was perfectly legal?"

But of course the reform that the president espouses is aimed at much of that other 98 1/2 percent as well. What the president meant by legal is the soft money that both parties now regularly raise from sources and in amounts that the election laws ostensibly forbid. They do so through a fiction; the pretense is that the money is being raised not to be used in particular campaigns but independently by the parties for broader purposes.

And the money-raising goes on. In preparation for next year's congressional elections, the national parties and their congressional fund-raising units raised $34 million in soft money – meaning money not subject to the rules that apply to particular candidacies – in the first half of this year, according to a search of the records by Common Cause. That's about 2 1/2 times as much as was raised at the same point in the last election cycle four years ago. The Republicans have raised about two-thirds of this, the Democrats, one-third.

The fund-raising in behalf of congressional candidates goes on even as congressional committees hold hearings on the abuses of last year. The members rightly deplore what happened then even as many of them prepare to benefit from what continues to happen now. But the striking thing about the continuing fund-raising isn't its juxtaposition to the hearings. It's the amounts involved. The lid is off this system, if ever it was on.

They ought to have the sense to fix it – both parties – before they are consumed by it. Next month, Senate supporters of a reform bill say they'll push for a vote even if it means disrupting the Senate. The president says he's on their side. Maybe the situation is such that this time they can extract a decent result. You have to hope so.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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