Common Cause becomes another common scold



WASHINGTON -- Common Cause is an organization that the politicians hold in what might be called minimum high regard.

It would be hard to argue that its goals are not worthwhile. Presumably, everyone is in favor of clean, democratic government responsive to ordinary Americans rather than those high-priced lobbyists in their Gucci loafers. But nobody likes holier-than-thou nags, and that is the way Common Cause is seen by the politicians who are so often its targets.

The Common Cause assault on President Clinton the other night is a quintessential example. It is true, as the group asserted, that Clinton has failed to end "soft money" as we know it, contrary to his promises during the 1992 election campaign. And no one can make a case that a loophole in campaign finances that allows fat cats or corporations to contribute $200,000 or $500,000 to a political party is defensible.

The term "soft money" applies to contributions that may be solicited from both individuals and corporations and unions to finance the activities of the party organizations at both the state and federal levels. There is no limit to the size of the contributions, as there are limits -- $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees -- on the amounts that may be given to candidates for federal office. So the "soft money" is an invitation to wretched excess.

Common Cause can hardly be faulted for using a big Democratic fund-raiser -- it yielded $3 million-plus at $1,500 a pop -- as an opportunity to get attention for its pickets carrying signs calling Clinton "the new soft money king," replacing George Bush. Under Clinton, the Democrats have raised more than $40 million in soft money in the last 21 months.

But the story is not as simple as Common Cause might have you believe. It is obvious, for example, that it would be unrealistic to expect Clinton and his party to engage in what he called "unilateral disarmament." So long as the law is on the books, both parties have no choice except to exploit it.

Nor does the president have the authority to rectify the abuse by executive fiat, although it may be argued -- as Common Cause does argue -- that Clinton has not gone to the wall to force campaign finance reforms through Congress.

But, again, it would be unrealistic to expect Clinton to use whatever political capital he enjoys to pressure Congress to swallow the unpleasant medicine of campaign finance reform at the same time he is asking them to take the political risks involved in voting for his health care program.

More to the point is the fact that demands for an end to soft money fail to recognize the need for some way to preserve political parties as viable entities in the system. The original intention was to allow the parties at both state and national levels to finance for the benefit of all their candidates such things as voter identification, registration and turnout programs -- goals that even the stuffiest reformer might consider worthwhile.

So the answer is not simply to abolish soft money, but to find a formula of regulations and ceilings that would nourish the political parties without allowing individual givers to buy influence with grotesque contributions.

At the same time, Congress needs to deal with other flaws in the system as it has evolved since that post-Watergate reform in 1974. Something clearly needs to be done about the rise in the influence of the PACs on which so many senators and congressmen have become so dependent.

Something needs to be done about the 20-year-old ceiling of $1,000 on individual contributions, an amount low enough so that many Senate candidates have to spend most of their campaign time going to fund-raisers rather than talking to constituents. Something needs to be done to put the brakes on the ridiculous costs of political campaigns.

Common Cause is well aware of all of these flaws. It is also a leading influence in trying to find the kind of legislative solution that might pass Congress next year.

But "soft money" makes the easiest target, and Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, is a streetwise player who knows how to exploit an opportunity to make his case. He would not be surprised to learn, however, that he and his do-gooder colleagues are not universally beloved on Capitol Hill.

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