WASHINGTON -- The Republicans are certainly correct that President Clinton is playing politics in planning to petition the Federal Election Commission to bar unrestricted ''soft money'' contributions to political campaigns.
Still, it's about time. Soft money -- funds given without limit to political parties under the guise of helping party-building rather than specific candidates -- has made a joke of legal limits on who can contribute to individual office-seekers and how much.
The Republicans don't want to see soft money prohibited without other reforms as well. In the 1995-96 election cycle, Republican Party entities -- chiefly the national committee and GOP senatorial and congressional campaign committees -- raised $138.2 million in soft money. The Democrats' counterpart committee raised ''only'' $123.9 million over the same period.
There is a second major loophole in federal campaign-finance law -- independent expenditures, money spent by an individual DTC or group, even in behalf of a candidate, that can't be limited if it is spent without consultation or collusion with a candidate's campaign operation.
Through this loophole, organized labor was a major contributor to Democrats last year, running heavy TV advertising for Mr. Clinton and against Republican nominee Bob Dole, as well as against potentially vulnerable GOP congressional candidates. The Republicans would like to see some restraint on the unions -- while benefiting themselves from heavy corporate giving through political-action committees making so-called independent expenditures.
Mr. Clinton correctly charges the Republicans with dragging their feet on campaign-finance reform since his famous handshake deal with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. But until now the president has done very little to break the bipartisan inertia.
Politicians who have thrived, or at least survived, under the existing system generally are not going to break their necks changing it. Although the wretched excesses of the last election cycle drew heavy editorial criticism around the country, members of Congress say they don't get much voter pressure for reform. That may be because voters are so fed up with their elected officials that they now expect little from them.
A prod to act
In any event, Mr. Clinton's notion of end-running Congress by asking the FEC to outlaw soft money (which it has encouraged with favorable opinions on it) is at least a prod to Congress to act. Republican Sen. John McCain, co-sponsor with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of a bipartisan reform bill backed by the president, complains that reform ''should be done legislatively'' and is not ''a proper function of a regulatory agency.'' If he feels that way, he needs to get his GOP colleagues off the dime.
Another Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays, a co-sponsor of the House version of the Senate bill, has also written a letter to the FEC, along with Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan, urging administrative action to put a clamp on soft money.
Before pinning too many roses on the president for this planned initiative, it should also be remembered that he has been under heavy public fire, and under the searchlight of two congressional committees, for the unprecedented use of his office and his official home to generate soft-money contributions. The specter of influence-selling hangs heavily over him as he presents himself as a reform crusader.
Turning to the FEC for relief on campaign reform is grasping at straws. It has been pathetically inept at curtailing campaign-finance violations, routinely reporting them long after an election has been decided. But Congress recently rejected a Clinton request for funds to beef up the agency's staff to deal with the flood of complaints.
The FEC's declaring soft money illegal would certainly trigger a fight in Congress, and potentially in the courts, over the agency's right to do so. In the meantime, it could be Mr. Clinton's prod to wake up Congress from its snooze over campaign-finance reform.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/06/97