WHEN IT COMES to the big political checks known as "soft money," the corporate spigot, if not completely shut off, seems to have slowed to a trickle of its formerly copious flow. In 2002, the last year of the old soft-money system, corporate donations amounted to more than half of the cash haul: $267 million out of $496 million in soft money given to the political parties.
Now, with such checks off-limits for parties, the six-figure action has shifted to outside groups called "527" -- and, at least so far, corporations appear far more reluctant to pony up to such groups. A Wall Street Journal survey of the top 20 corporate givers to the parties during the 2002 election found that more than half were balking at opening their checkbooks to outside groups. That reluctance is not surprising: Unlike many individuals, who were motivated more by ideology than self-interest, corporations often donated as part of a political protection racket run by both parties.
If this corporate parsimony persists -- and that's an open question -- that would augur well for the effectiveness of the new campaign finance law, which was designed to end this combination of thinly disguised extortion (by politicians who solicited the checks) and undisguised access-buying (by those who wrote them). To stop the old soft-money system from being revived under new, outside management, it's necessary to ensure that the groups are effectively separated from the parties and candidates they support. To the extent that donors think their generosity toward outside groups will be noticed -- and rewarded -- by elected officials, the law will be undermined.
Congratulations, then, are due to James Francis Jr., who ran the Bush campaign's hugely successful "Pioneer" program of $100,000 bundlers four years ago but recently rebuffed an offer to head a Republican 527, Progress for America. "It gets down to 'What does it look like?' And it might not look like I was independent," Mr. Francis told The Post's Thomas B. Edsall. By contrast, Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, who runs the Media Fund, a 527 running television ads supporting Sen. John F. Kerry, also serves on the Democratic National Committee's executive committee, a troubling blurring of roles.
Of even more concern -- though permitted by the new law -- is the involvement of lawmakers in promoting the outside groups. Headlining a dinner next month for the Leadership Forum, a Republican 527, will be House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Democratic lawmakers, including the Senate and House minority leaders, Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have performed similar services for Democratic groups.
All this points up the importance of a case pending in federal court in the District that challenges the outrageously permissive stance taken by the Federal Election Commission in implementing the new law's prohibition on solicitation of soft-money checks for outside groups by elected officials or candidates. As Congress knew, this rule is critical to preventing the soft-money system from being re-created in a different guise. But the FEC defined "solicit" to apply only to direct, explicit requests for contributions.
This cramped reading would allow officeholders to say things such as "I will not forget those who contribute at this crucial stage" or "I am not permitted to ask for contributions, but unsolicited contributions can be accepted at the following address." According to the FEC, "a series of conversations which, when taken together, constitute a request for a contribution or donation" doesn't amount to solicitation. As then-Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, a Democrat, acknowledged, "It allows a wink and a nod." There's quite enough of that going on already. If the new law is to succeed, the courts need to step in to tell the FEC to enforce it the way Congress intended.