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Putting Squeeze on `Soft' Money


By Robert P. HeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1990


FROM honorariums to campaign contributions, the ethics issue has swirled like an ill wind through the marble halls of Congress for the past year. Now it may at last have led to some results: Reform of the much-criticized system of financing congressional campaigns finally seems possible.

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``I hope and expect that we will have meaningful campaign finance reform this year,'' says Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine. He cites the ``enormous cost [and] inordinate length'' of congressional campaigns as forcing attention to reform.

He and House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington both talk of the importance of action in 1990. ``The Speaker and I are in agreement that campaign finance reform is a high priority this year,'' Senator Mitchell says.

A key and particularly contentious issue: Should an upper limit be slapped on the amount of money a congressional candidate can spend on campaigning. Democrats favor such a ceiling; Republicans oppose it.

There are two other significant problems: ``soft'' money and political action committee (PAC) contributions. Soft money is campaign contributions made to state political parties, which then are used to make end runs around campaign financing laws in various ways. These include polling, and registering blocks of voters who are most likely to vote for the candidate the party supports.

The principal campaign finance reform bill now under consideration in the Senate, sponsored by Senators Mitchell and David Boren (D) of Oklahoma would address these issues.

The Senate Rules Committee has been holding hearings on the bill. Mitchell says he hopes the committee will complete its work on the measure this week and that the full Senate will vote on the proposal before the end of this month.

If Congress makes any changes in the present system one of the most likely would be to require more restrictions on and disclosure of soft money, Thomas Mann, director of the governmental studies program of the Brookings Institution, says. Soft money is ``one thing that we definitely must attack,'' says Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas.

Another likely change would be to reduce the maximum amount that PACs can give candidates, Mr. Mann says.

``The perception is growing that PAC-funding is wrong,'' Senator Pryor says.

Large amounts of money are involved. From 1983 through 1988, PACs that represent special interests gave $194 million in campaign contributions to current US representatives, according to statistics released last Friday by Common Cause. The organization added that during the same six years special-interest PACs contributed $97 million to current US senators.

Business representatives protest that PACs are unfairly criticized.

``PACS help those who do not have great personal wealth to compete with those who do,'' says R. Gary Wilson, chairman the national public affairs steering committee of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The cost of political campaigns is widely agreed to be a major part of the problem.

The Federal Election Commission says that 70 candidates, including incumbents, who seek election to the Senate this fall report having raised $62 million last year. Fifteen incumbents have more than $1 million in hand.