Political Slush Fund

February 20, 1993

The John Arnick debacle left many Marylanders wondering whether their legislators in Annapolis had lost touch with the real world around them. Now they can wonder the same thing about the state Democratic Party's leadership.

Maryland's top Democratic party officials are pushing a bill that would open a giant loophole in the two-year-old $10,000 cap on an individual's or group's state political contributions during a four-year election cycle. Fat cats would be able to pitch in 10 times that much by splitting it among party committees in each political jurisdiction. Vera Hall, who chairs the state Democratic Party, had the audacity to tell a state Senate committee this would be a contribution to good government.

Have Ms. Hall and the rest of the party leadership been paying any attention to events in Washington during the past few years?

On Capitol Hill, this is known as "soft money." Individuals, and organizations like corporations and unions that are barred from contributing to candidates for federal office, lavish hundreds of thousands of dollars in the guise of "party building." There is nothing soft about that money other than the ethical standards that accompany it. At the least, it buys access to key officials or legislators. At worst, it is an open door to corruption.

It is no coincidence the lists of "soft money" contributors are dominated by people, companies or industries that are most heavily regulated by the federal government or whose well-being is determined by decisions in Washington. Nor is it a coincidence that individuals who chip in $100,000 or so suddenly get nominated to cushy jobs like ambassadorships. This sort of chicanery was supposedly outlawed in the post-Watergate reforms, but the "soft money" loophole perpetuated it.

That's the sort of underhanded political financing the Democratic leadership seeks to introduce here. The so-called "party building" activities that are the ostensible beneficiary of this bill are usually targeted to assist particular candidates. More often than not, they are simply devices to get around the $4,000-per-candidate contribution limit enacted in 1991 -- an increase from the previous $1,000. Putting a giant slush fund into the hands of the state Democratic leadership is an atrocious idea. The sooner it is killed the better.

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