By STEPHEN WINN - Deputy Editorial Page Editor
Date: 07/24/98 22:00
The sooner Americans come to accept the fact that bribery is a central part of the legislative process in Washington, the sooner members of Congress will be forced to clean up their act.
In the meantime, our political representatives just seem to be getting more and more brazen.
The latest outrage: The Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees are raking in record amounts of "soft money."
This means the very people who are responsible for writing campaign finance legislation aren't even bothering to pretend they are interested in following the laws that are now in place.
In the past, members of Congress could at least feign personal dismay at the abuse of the soft-money rules by the national party organizations and presidential campaigns.
But now the lawmakers themselves are simply jostling their way up to the soft-money trough and chowing down.
So congressional incumbents in both parties will enjoy even greater advantages over their challengers in this year's elections than they have in the past.
To understand why this congressional money grab is so outrageous, let's briefly review the rules on soft money.
Most soft-money donations would ordinarily be illegal under federal law. For example, the law does not allow corporations and labor unions to contribute anything to any campaigns for federal office.
But they can make soft-money contributions to the political parties if that money is used for certain purposes.
Soft money can be spent for broad "party-building activities" such as voter registration drives and ads about party platforms. Soft money can also be spent on some state and local candidates.
Soft money is not supposed to be used to elect individual candidates to federal offices.
Electing individual candidates to federal office, however, is what the four congressional campaign committees are all about.
Let's start with their names: the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
These groups are run by members of Congress for the express purpose of getting themselves re-elected and -- somewhat lower on the priority list, of course -- helping nonincumbents in their own parties capture seats in Congress.
The Democratic senators' group, for example, describes itself as an organization "formed by the Democratic members of the U.S. Senate to provide campaign services for Democratic nominees to the U.S. Senate."
You can't get much clearer than that.
That's why Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, recently said that "there's not even a fig leaf" for the congressional campaign committees to hide behind in collecting soft money.
As reported in the June 27 issue of Congressional Quarterly, the recent jumps in soft-money collection on Capitol Hill have been astounding.
In the first 15 months of the current election cycle, the Republican senators' group raised $14.5 million, up from only $2.5 million four years ago. Its Democratic counterpart has raised $7.8 million in this cycle compared to less than half a million dollars in 1994.
The figures for the House campaign committees also have gone up dramatically, particularly for the Republicans.
Trying to justify this sorry picture, congressional committee officials claim they are taking on larger party-building roles and helping state candidates.
But Congressional Quarterly reported that they refused to release detailed breakdowns showing how they were spending their soft money.
So we're free to assume the worst, and probably should.
A particularly dismal note: The National Republican Senatorial Committee is headed by none other than Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose tireless efforts to derail campaign-finance reform have made him the poster boy for reform-minded organizations like Common Cause.
Members of Congress in both parties have long argued that they don't sell their votes for campaign contributions.
It's a ludicrous argument, refuted by what actually happens every week Congress is in session -- and some other weeks as well.
Journalists and reform organizations issue an endless stream of reports linking votes to campaign donations.
(Three nonpartisan organizations offer a wealth of information on the subject on their Internet sites: Common Cause at www.commoncause.org, Public Campaign at www.publicampaign.org, and the Center for Public Integrity at www.publicintegrity.org.)
The congressional campaign committees have absolutely no business collecting soft money.
Campaign-finance rules will never be worth much if the people who pass the laws treat them with contempt.
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