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05/21/98- Updated 02:32 AM ET

Dems, GOP push for more 'soft money'

WASHINGTON - Even as a bipartisan band of reformers begins a push Thursday for an end to the unregulated, unlimited "soft" money flowing to their political parties, the parties themselves are quietly going after even more of it.

At high-dollar fund-raisers and in a little-noticed pair of federal court cases, Republicans and Democrats are pursuing soft money like never before. They have raised more than $90 million so far in the current two-year election cycle, a record pace for a non-presidential year.

"It's an addiction," says Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., sponsor of one of the reform bills that will be debated in the House of Representatives beginning Thursday. "The public's going to have to force some serious rehabilitation."

For more than a year, Congress has investigated, held hearings and decried the abuses of unbridled political fund-raising. But the prospects for enactment of reforms this year are dim. And if the parties win their court cases, which seek to lift limits on some political ads, the tide of soft money could become a deluge, further eroding the already weak constraints on political money.

The symptoms of dependency have become familiar:

  • White House coffees, rides on Air Force One and sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom for big Democratic donors.
  • Foreign money flowing to both parties.
  • An explosion in party-financed "issue ads," election-year messages that are little more than campaign commercials for congressional or presidential candidates.

At the heart of it all is soft money, the term for large, unlimited contributions to the parties, mostly from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. The money is supposed to be used only for generic party activities like encouraging voting, not for direct help to candidates for federal office.

Reformers argue that because of the amounts - gifts can range as high as $1 million - soft money carries the greatest temptation for corruption.

This week, Congressional Republicans launched investigations of alleged Chinese contributions to the Democrats and whether any contributions were part of a plot to influence U.S. policy. Aerospace company Loral denied that $632,000 in soft money gifts by its chairman to the Democratic Party in 1996 led to a presidential waiver allowing Loral to pursue satellite business with China.

Ready to spend

Despite the criticisms of soft money, the parties are asking for an emergency court order that would let them spend unlimited amounts of soft money on so-called issue ads. Republicans are poised, for example, to launch an advertising blitz in a crucial special election June 23 in New Mexico, where the GOP hopes to hold onto the seat of the late Rep. Steven Schiff. Further ads are likely leading up to November's congressional elections, where the GOP's 11-seat margin of control in the House is at stake.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) requires that the parties finance issue advertising with a mix of soft and "hard" dollars, which is money raised within the strict limits and reporting requirements of campaign finance law. Hard money is more difficult to raise because individuals can give no more than $25,000 a year.

If they didn't have to use valuable hard dollars to help pay for issue ads, the parties could greatly increase their spending on the ads. The two parties want the court to let them pay for the ads with 100% soft money.

Driving the parties is a new campaign reality: the proliferation of issue advertising by outside advocacy groups touting everything from term limits to tax reform. In the 1996 elections, these groups spent at least $135 million on issue ads.

Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland says the FEC regulations have put his party at a disadvantage to groups like the National Rifle Association and Americans for Tax Reform, which can spend freely on issue advertising and not disclose how much they spend.

"I'd go along with getting rid of soft money, but we have to live in the real world," Leland says. "All we want is a level playing field."

Arguments in the parties' lawsuits, which the court has combined, are to be heard soon by U.S. District Court Judge William Bryant. If Bryant agrees and abolishes the hard-money match for issue ads, it will "blow up" what's left of the tattered campaign finance laws, says Don Simon of the reform group Common Cause.

"It will provide just a huge open pipeline to funnel unregulated money through the parties and into federal campaigns. It's a frontal assault."

Many critics say it's hard for things to get much worse. "Pretty much anything goes" under the current law, says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter. The rules "force you to take a few extra steps to get around them, but they don't amount to a campaign finance system."

Mark Braden, a Washington lawyer who coined the term "soft money" when he worked at RNC headquarters in the late 1970s, remembers that in those days the party used to send back checks from friendly corporations, fearing the political taint. Since then, however, both parties have found increasing ways to use soft money in a financial arms race.

"The fact that there are more uses (for the money) means an attempt to raise more of it," Braden says. "The parties have felt comfortable doing it. There hasn't been a political downside."

Coming full circle

On Capitol Hill, the two most popular proposals to revamp the campaign finance system would curtail soft money and impose some limits on issue advertising by outside groups.

Republican House leaders agreed to bring the matter up only after they were confronted with a revolt from moderates and freshmen in their party. Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., contends that campaign spending equals free speech and that more is needed, not less.

The reformers themselves are divided. Many support legislation sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., that is the favorite of reform groups and newspaper editorial boards. House freshmen led by Hutchinson and Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, are pushing a more modest version.

But even if reform advocates can join forces and the House passes a bill when it returns from its Memorial Day break, the measure's fate is clouded. A Republican-led filibuster blocked similar legislation in the Senate this year, and Majority Leader Trent Lott has said he is unlikely to devote any more time to the issue.

So it seems certain that this fall's congressional elections will be waged under rules that have more loopholes than substance, critics say. Whether the public will demand changes before the presidential election of 2000 may depend on how this year's campaign is conducted, including whether issue advertising by parties and outside groups proliferates.

"Every single change in the campaign finance laws has had unintended and unforeseen consequences," Braden says. "It will do something nobody predicts right now."

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

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