Purifying the Process

PRESIDENTIAL candidate Bill Clinton said he would, if elected, sign a campaign-finance reform bill that was passed by Congress last May but vetoed by President Bush.

Congressional Democrats have taken him at his word and agreed on a new bill that would limit campaign spending and strengthen regulation of political contributions. It would also establish a system of financing congressional elections similar to the one governing presidential elections. Congressional candidates who voluntarily cap their campaign spending at an agreed level would be eligible for public funds. The bill would also ban the use of "soft money" in federal elections.

This could be an important step toward bolstering the integrity of the American political process. The vetoed bill would have closed some of the loopholes that enabled corporations, wealthy individuals, and other special interests to donate large amounts to individual candidates through their parties - so-called "soft money."

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If the measure had been in effect for the 1992 election, it probably would not have affected the outcome of the presidential race. But it would have helped curb a cynical practice that tends to sully the entire electoral process - the use of campaign contributions to influence lawmakers to respond to the donors' interests.

The wooing of candidates occurs in most elections, but it reaches its peak in presidential years. Under present federal law, each major-party presidential candidate received $55.24 million this year, raised through the $1 checkoff on individual income tax forms. They are barred from using private funds for their campaigns. (Ross Perot was not a party to this process because he provided his own financing.)

But the fund-raising continues through the auspices of the national party. There is no limit on donations to the party organizations: Again, "soft money."

This year's elections set spending records. Candidates for the House spent an average of $370,077. Senate candidates averaged $2,613,486, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Many races generated totals far higher than these averages.

Well-heeled donors tend to "vote" twice in important elections - by contributing handsomely to both major-party candidates. And if one candidate appears to have the upper hand, they see to it that more of their money gets into that hand. That usually favors incumbents.

One thing is certain: The legislation will have to be carefully crafted. Special interests will not give up their influence easily, and so far they have proven adept at getting around restrictions.

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