Clinton's plan to reform campaigns stirs doubts ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Word that President Clinton wants to attack campaign "soft money" and at the same time permit higher contributions to federal candidates and their parties is fanning skepticism that his campaign reform package will effectively address the inordinate influence of money in national politics.

It is not that going after such campaign funds -- called "soft" because they go to the state and local parties ostensibly for voter registration, turnout and "education" rather than to specific federal candidates -- is not a necessary objective in the effort to limit the clout of big money.

Rather, it is a concern that the administration will not go far enough and will use the focus on soft money to finesse other serious campaign finance problems, such as the mushrooming of political action committees in the hands of a host of special interest groups.

According to the New York Times, Clinton would couple the soft-money attack with a doubling of the limit that any one contributor could give for all federal office seekers and their parties, from $25,000 now to $50,000, half to candidates and half to parties -- a move that critics say would enhance the influence of big givers only.

Under existing law, the ability of contributors to shovel unlimited amounts of soft money into state and local party operations for functions benefiting an entire party ticket is a glaring loophole in the attempt to put a lid on spending in federal elections.

The current law permits not only individuals but also corporations and labor unions, barred from giving to federal candidates, to donate as much as they want to the state and local parties. As a result, says Susan Manes, vice president for issues at Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby, big givers can "launder" huge amounts of money through these parties, which then in effect use them to benefit their presidential candidates along with their state and local candidates.

In last year's presidential election, Manes says, "both parties used soft money to finance the ground war" -- the traditional campaign at the grass-roots level -- and thus freed up the bulk of the federal subsidy of about $55 million each given to Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George Bush to wage "the air war" -- the costly competition for votes on radio and television.

But even if a lid is placed on soft-money contributions, Manes says, unless more is done to reduce substantially the ability of wealthy individuals to play an inordinate role in directly financing federal candidates, the basic problem will remain.

One reason the matter of soft money has loomed larger and larger in campaign finance reform is that federal law prohibits the acceptance of private contributions of any kind by presidential nominees who take the federal subsidy. So while individuals can give to candidates during the primary election period, they must go the soft-money route after the party conventions to curry favor with the nominees.

The drying up of soft money, says Charles Black, a leading strategist for the Bush campaign last year, would mean either sharp cutbacks in grass-roots campaigning in the states or diversion of funds now spent on television. And David Doak, a prominent Democratic media consultant, suggests that the cuts inevitably will come in what Manes calls "the ground war." Clinton, in his recent news conference, said his plan would "enable the parties to raise sufficient funds to involve grass-roots people and empower people to participate in the political process."

Both houses of Congress passed campaign finance reform last year but then President Bush vetoed it. The matter was supposed to be one of those that would win enactment quickly under a Democratic president unhindered by gridlock. But reaction to the first reports of his package indicates considerable work and compromise lie ahead.

Arguments for increasing the amount that an individual can give at the federal level are that doing so would diminish the appeal to givers of going the soft-money route, and that it would ease fund-raising for candidates, freeing them to spend more time addressing issues. But such groups as Common Cause say both steps are needed -- shutting down soft money and reducing dependence on wealthy givers -- if money's role is really going to be curtailed in national elections.

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