Time to ban soft money

Campaign finance: The Enron scandal has breathed new life into the reform movement.

January 28, 2002

THE SUCCESS of a discharge petition that will require the House of Representatives to hold a long-delayed vote on real campaign finance reform was another victory in the ongoing battle to ban so-called "soft money." But the war is far from over, and it's far from clear that the good guys will win.

"Soft money" refers to the unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and other interest groups to political parties. It can be used to buy the donors favors and access to elected officials that ordinary citizens, who can't make million-dollar contributions, would relish. And unlike contributions to individual candidates, there is no limit on the amount that can be donated.

Special interest groups contributed more than $460 million in soft money during the 2000 campaign. Enron Corp. alone contributed more than $2 million, and almost $6 million since 1989. Its embattled auditing firm, Arthur Andersen, has donated more than $5 million in soft money since 1989, and made contributions to 94 of the 100 U.S. senators. Both corporations were among the largest donors to President Bush's 2000 campaign.

Whether such contributions helped those companies win favors from the administration and federal regulators is now under investigation. But the stench from the misbehavior of these big-dollar contributors has given new life to the drive to ban soft money.

Last April, the Senate finally passed the McCain-Feingold bill, which would ban such contributions. But House leaders used procedural games to block the vote they had promised on the similar Shays-Meehan bill. That forced reformers to file the discharge petition, which has now won enough signatories to force a vote.

But House Republican leaders may delay the vote for months or use killer amendments to vitiate reform.

Another way the leadership might kill reform is by backing a so-called alternative sponsored by Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, a Republican, and Maryland Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat. That bill supposedly caps soft-money contributions.

But it would allow contributors to give up to $900,000 per election to the national parties and make unlimited donations to state party committees.

The Shays-Meehan bill would ban such contributions outright.

It alone represents real reform, and it's high time for House leaders to stop their obstructionism and allow it to face a fair vote.

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