Dirty money

July 21, 1992

This country got rid of shady political contributions in the post-Watergate reforms, didn't it? Corporations are forbidden to finance federal election campaigns, aren't they? Not to the tune of $1 million, right? Presidential candidates who will collect $55 million of public money to run their campaigns can't benefit from private contributions, can they? Ross Perot was the only fat cat allowed to splurge on presidential politics this year, wasn't he?

Wrong.

A new study by a nonpartisan research group describes even more starkly the well-established polluting influence of "soft money" political contributions. When Congress outlawed the sort of corrupt black-bag financing that tarnished the Nixon administration in 1972, it left a huge loophole. While corporations can't finance federal candidates, they can contribute heavily to the political organizations which service those candidates. It's the classic distinction without a difference, because the national parties and their offspring perform many functions the candidates would otherwise have to finance from their own treasuries.

According to the Center for Responsible Politics, the biggest contributors of soft money are the most heavily regulated. Wall Street securities firms and the oil and gas industry head the list, followed by insurance, tobacco and real estate companies. One company alone, Archer-Daniels-Midland, directly or indirectly chipped in $900,000 to the Republicans and $136,000 to the Democrats in the past year and a half. The Midwestern grain conglomerate exports staggering quantities of price-supported food grains and is deeply involved in the manufacture of corn-based ethanol, a highly subsidized gasoline substitute. A businessman who recently wrote a $100,000 check to the Republicans stoutly denied there was any connection with his nomination to a coveted embassy within weeks.

Since both Republicans and Democrats feed at the same trough, there is little chance anything will be done to end this obvious stimulus to corruption. No, there is seldom a spoken tit-for-tat when checks are written for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But everyone understands the game. The parties' dependence on this sort of contribution to mount a national political campaign poisons the political process and could lead to scandal again.

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