Lapping up political money: Bipartisan corruption: Both parties are committed to a system they pretend to deplore.

February 23, 1997

IF DEMOCRATS are at the trough, can Republicans be far behind? Or do they get there first, and lap up the biggest share? This is a distressing thought worth pondering as GOP "Team 100" -- a gathering of big contributors at a Florida resort -- winds up its exercise in access. Access being of the chatting-up-your-senator sort, which is heady stuff even if it can't compare to White House coffee klatches for Democratic givers.

Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Senate leader Trent Lott agree on one thing: They both love and believe in political money -- lots of it, in volumes that made the last election the first billion-dollar affair of its kind in history.

The president, in search of the "soft-money" contributions he supposedly deplores, assured donors last week that he appreciated their "exercise of the constitutional right to stand up and support the people you believe in." Not to be outdone, Senator Lott told his fat cats, each of whom was good for $175,000, that what they were doing was "the American way."

Such sentiments hardly auger well for the campaign finance reform that attracts so much lip service in Washington. Senate Republicans are eagerly launching investigations into the way Clinton Democrats sold access, influence and perhaps even policy direction to persons uncomfortably close to the Chinese, Indonesian, Taiwanese and Guam governments.

Trouble is, only two Republicans -- John McCain and Fred Thompson -- support the lone credible reform bill in the hopper. They are easily outgunned by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentuckian who wraps up the current corrupt system in the revered parchment of the First Amendment. Yet some Republicans are worried and are quietly encouraging a Democratic filibuster against Mr. Thompson's plea for a $6.5 million investigative budget.

Be aware that congressional probes can mess up prosecutions. And prosecutors can inhibit lawmakers. Ironically, the way to slow down Fred Thompson would be for Attorney General Janet Reno to bow to Republican demands for an independent counsel.

Wary Americans should not be bamboozled by the swirl of revelations about Clinton coffee klatching or the hypocrisies of assorted incumbents. Both parties are committed to excessive fund-raising. They will remain so until public outrage becomes so thunderous (if it ever does) that they can no longer deflect or ignore it.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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