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Hypocrites and Soft Money

Monday, May 18, 1998; Page A16

THE HOUSE IS scheduled to begin work this week on campaign finance reform legislation. The choice should be easy, but the Republican leadership continues to complicate it. The issue is soft money, the principal device by which the law is now evaded. The political parties are used as shells to raise and spend on behalf of their candidates enormous amounts of money that the candidates are forbidden to raise and spend themselves.

This soft-money system was the source of most of the fund-raising excesses in the last campaign. Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan have a bill that would ban it. A bipartisan group of freshmen has produced a well-meant but weaker alternative that would achieve only a partial ban. They say theirs is a respectable bill and the only one that can pass, meaning that not enough Republicans will join the bulk of the Democrats in support of Shays-Meehan. But that's the wrong reason to vote for the lesser bill. It lets the resisters off the hook -- allows them to say they can't because they won't. Too many members want to vote for the label of reform without enough of the content. A vote no on Shays-Meehan is a vote against reform or in favor of a gesture.

Shays-Meehan itself is an already truncated bill. Real reform would extend the presidential system of voluntary spending limits and partial public finance to congressional campaigns. But sponsors long ago dropped that as impossible of enactment in this Congress. Shays-Meehan is the remnant. Yet opponents say even it is too strong. They argue as well in the opposite direction -- that the difference between it and the freshmen bill is not that great, in that the money will find its way into the campaigns no matter what Congress does. Why worry if you pass only a partial ban and leave an opening, if one will be found anyway? But the bill should not include the signpost to its own circumvention. That's what the freshmen bill does, in banning the soft money system only at the national level while allowing it to continue within the states.

Republican leaders have spent a year and a half rightly denouncing the fund-raising abuses of the last campaign. But they don't want to change the law that continues to permit the abuses. They like the bucks. Majority Leader Trent Lott led a filibuster to kill a soft-money ban that looked as if it had a majority in the Senate earlier this year. Speaker Newt Gingrich allowed the debate, which will begin this week and end after the Memorial Day recess, only when his hand was forced by a discharge petition. House Republican Whip Tom DeLay continues to say, as has Mr. Gingrich, that the trouble with campaigns today is too little money, not too much. They can't have the issue both ways.

The Democrats are guilty of their own towering hypocrisies on the subject. Led by the president, they seek in part to erase the record of the last campaign by now supporting legislation to outlaw practices that they themselves helped to perfect. That's nonetheless the right position. The House should pass Shays-Meehan without disfiguring amendments, send it back to the Senate and see what happens.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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