Campaign finance reform

Law needs changing: Attorney general's recent decisions underscore need for Congress to act.

February 06, 1999

ATTORNEY General Janet Reno last week closed the door on possible independent counsel inquiries into the financing of the 1996 presidential campaign.

She did so by declining to approve an independent counsel investigation of White House chief of staff Harold Ickes for special favors he allegedly traded the Teamsters for campaign funds. The decision comes weeks after Ms. Reno similarly refused to recommend an independent counsel investigation of President Clinton's 1996 fund-raising activities.

In both cases, key Republican critics loudly chastised Ms. Reno while ignoring the gaping loopholes in campaign finance laws that precluded further investigations. And in a troubling sign of the current reform climate, House Speaker Dennis Hastert this week indicated he plans to delay congressional consideration of a promising reform vehicle.

The legislation he intends to stall is a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill that was reintroduced in the House and Senate Jan. 19. It would effectively ban the soft money contributions that are predicted to grow to $500 million in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Controlling "soft money" contributions is the key to campaign finance reform. This funny-money is used for so-called "issues" ads, purportedly not designed to aid candidates or parties and, therefore, outside the restrictions of federal law.

Even the Federal Elections Commission, the body charged with enforcement, has complained about the legal loopholes. Indeed, an FEC audit that found massive violations by both Democrats and Republicans in 1996 prompted Ms. Reno's inquiry of the president.

FEC auditors recommended repayment of $7 million by the Clinton campaign and $17 million by the campaign of Republican Bob Dole. Unfortunately, FEC commissioners rejected the recommendations.

Without legislation that reforms the weak and vague laws enacted in the wake of Watergate, the campaign financing problem won't change -- except to get worse.

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