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Too Soft on Soft Money

August 06, 2003

The use of corporate donations to pay for national political conventions has an unsavory past. A $400,000 pledge from International Telegraph and Telephone Corp. for the 1972 GOP convention eventually played a big role in the Watergate scandal, prompting reforms. So why did Ellen L. Weintraub, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, recently call such unregulated donations a "promotional benefit," likening them to corporate sponsorships of Super Bowls?

In March 2002, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill became law, cracking down on giving by corporations, unions and individuals of unregulated sums, so-called "soft money." Ever since, campaign finance reform has been under assault, even by those who should back it.

The FEC, whose six commissioners are appointed equally by Democrats and Republicans, has balked at its duty to enforce campaign laws; it voted last month to let unions and corporations give soft money for presidential nominating conventions.

As if the FEC wasn't squishy enough on campaign integrity, leading Democrats want to weaken it further. They fear that the GOP has gained an edge, working within the soft money ban and raising many more of the permitted $2,000 donations.

Unions are apoplectic that reforms bar them from running "issue ads" -- partisan appeals thinly disguised as discussions of topical matters -- within 60 days before general elections.

FEC Commissioner Scott E. Thomas has been the body's staunchest supporter of campaign reform. That made him the whipping boy of Democratic leaders, especially Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who declined to reappoint him.

Thomas' replacement will be Robert D. Lenhard, a lawyer and member of an AFL-CIO team that has challenged the legality of McCain-Feingold.

Is there anything that could end both national parties' intolerable reluctance to clean up the corrupting influence of money in politics? Perhaps mutual self-destruction. President Bush may be raising tens of millions of dollars for his party and his own reelection without breaking a sweat. But some in the GOP fear this practice may boomerang in 2008 should Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) seek the presidency and exercise her proven, prodigious fund-raising prowess.

Congress should also look at more reform. Michael E. Toner, a Republican on the FEC, has joined the outgoing Thomas to float a plan that would raise the presidential primary spending ceiling from $45 million to $75 million, a more realistic sum that candidates might abide; Common Cause and Democracy 21 call for matching small donations with federal funds, giving candidates more reason to rely on public financing.

As McCain-Feingold shows, with enough outcry, politicians can be shamed into action on campaign reform. There is more to be done, if the will to do it can be revived.

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