Packwood's revelation

September 19, 1995

CAMPAIGN FINANCE reformers in Washington are less interested in the sexual confessions in Sen. Bob Packwood's diary than in a passage that deals with the illegal use of "soft money."

Soft money is what very rich special interests contribute to state and local political parties for sample ballots, grass-roots campaign material, voter registration and turnout drives. Fat cats like soft money because it is exempt from the contributions and expenditure limits of the Federal Election Campaign Act. In return for that favored treatment, such money must not be used for the direct and specific benefit of a candidate for federal office.

In 1992, Senator Packwood confided to his diary that Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, then chairman of the committee charged with helping campaigning Republican senators, told him the committee would donate $100,000 in soft money to the Oregon Republican Party to help his re-election efforts. He quoted Senator Gramm as saying, "Now, of course, there can't be any legal connection between this money and Senator Packwood, but we know that it will be used for his benefit." Mr. Packwood also wrote, "I think that's a felony. This is an area of the law I don't want to know."

Senator Gramm has denied any illegalities, but questions still linger, because soft money -- theoretically a good idea, if you believe in a strong two-party system -- has become an embarrassment, if not a disgrace. If not a crime.

One reason is that, like so much campaign law, it is fuzzy and complicated and aimed at keeping the big money flowing more than at controlling it.

Senator Packwood is not the only senator who doesn't know and doesn't want to know this "area of the law." Others on Capitol Hill confess similar ignorance. That is a pretty amazing fact of life, considering that these are the people who wrote the law.

Some reformers go too far in their rhetorical demand for change. They want all special interest money out of politics. That is impossible, given the enormous monetary implications of the federal government's laws and regulations on economic activity.

But the American people are disgusted with politics as usual in large part because big money plays too large (and often covert) a role in elections. It's time to revise the law so that campaign finance laws are simple and clear to the public, special interests and candidates, including incumbents.

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