Loopholes for loot

February 18, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Policing the influence of money in politics is a lot like policing the use of drugs on racehorses to enhance their performance.

Every time a way to clamp down on either one is developed, the fixers come up with a new way to achieve the same end.

In horse racing, it's often a new drug that can't immediately be detected. In politics, it's finding another way to funnel the green stuff into a campaign for a candidate or a particular cause.

Now that the modest Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill has been passed by the House and sent to the Senate, where a very similar bill has already been approved, it looks like curtains for unregulated "soft" money flowing directly into such campaigns.

Only the threat of a filibuster by the bill's chief would-be assassin, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, stands in the way. And with the impetus for action provided by the Enron scandal, he would be foolhardy to take that course.

The collapsed corporation, which flooded Democratic and Republican coffers alike with soft money, has become the campaign poster for political finance reform.

Once the legislation is sent to President Bush, it is almost inconceivable that he would not sign it.

Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, has had the cheek to actually claim credit on Mr. Bush's behalf for the prospective reform - after longtime opposition and mixed signals to the Republican leadership in Congress trying to kill it.

But if you think his signature would stop individuals and special-interest groups from shoveling all the money they want into campaigns for candidates of their choice and causes they wish to advance, think again.

One of the most obvious and effective avenues still open is in the making of "independent expenditures," that is, money spent by anyone acting alone, or through a registered political action committee, to engage in political activity under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

The reforms passed in 1974 after the Watergate scandal said such unlimited expenditures could be made "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate" provided they were "made without cooperation or consultation with any candidate or any authorized committee" for that candidate.

So while direct contributions to a candidate's campaign committee are limited, anyone or any PAC may spend freely and independently outside such a campaign committee, just as long as there is no communication whatsoever with the candidate who benefits or with his campaign advisers.

There, of course, is the rub.

Under the law, there is nothing to prevent a candidate or his campaign strategists, knowing there is a person or PAC friendly to the candidate available, to leave an important aspect of the campaign undone, such as radio or television advertising.

Without any communication between the campaign and independent money source, that source can fill the obvious vacuum by producing ads for the candidate and buying the time to air them.

Campaigns usually farm out their advertising campaigns anyway. By this wrinkle, the tab can be picked up as an independent expenditure and the campaign's needs for advertising still met.

There is, to be sure, a potential problem with independent expenditures. If the law is followed to the letter, in this particular example, decisions about ad content and when and where an ad is aired would be removed from the hands of the campaign and left to a free-lancer.

It is, however, a problem that often can be handled with a wink and a nod between campaign and spender that will be very hard to detect by those who police the law.

There are other ways to keep money flowing into the election process, and no doubt new ones will be found or invented by smart campaign lawyers just as resourceful as those race track pharmacists who come up with new speed drugs whenever old ones are detected.

But for now, the ban on soft money that finally seems on its way to enactment marks, at the very least, Congress facing up to a disgrace that for too long has besmirched federal elections.

It also has besmirched Congress for letting it go on until now.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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