`Soft Money' Matters

PRESIDENT Clinton took some sharp criticism recently for continuing to raise ``soft money'' for his party. That's money contributors can give in unlimited amount to the Democrats' or Republicans' national organizations and thus evade the limits that federal law puts on donations directly to candidates.

The president's critics, notably the group Common Cause, pointed out that candidate Clinton had vowed to close such ``loopholes'' in regulations aimed at reining in the runaway race for money in US politics. ``Fat cat'' influence would be a thing of the past once he ran things, Clinton seemed to promise.

Yet there he was a couple of weeks ago, attending a big Washington fund-raising gala at which corporate executives and other wealthy individuals could chip in their $100,000 or so. Is there any excuse for such apparent hypocrisy?

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One obvious one: The system still allows the practice, and why shouldn't Democrats, like Republicans, take advantage of it? It wasn't so long ago, after all, that the same critics were taking aim at George Bush for hosting soft-money fund-raisers.

A somewhat better response to the question: Soft money is not a ``loophole,'' but a method of bolstering the declining influence of political parties - a method purposefully inserted into electoral law by Congress in the late 1970s after earlier tries at reform. Much of the money collected at the big-party fund-raisers supposedly goes to get-out-the-vote efforts, registration drives, and other generally positive means of boosting political participation.

But there's no way of knowing for sure where the millions go. Lots of the money may seep into federal election campaigns, bypassing the law just as critics claim. Beyond that shortcoming, soft-money practices inevitably feed a public perception that big bucks buy access that no ordinary citizen could hope to have. The feting of large corporate donors at affairs attended by top officials is not a way to erase the old stain of ``politics as usual.''

Clinton aides affirm that their boss is still committed to effective campaign-spending reform, including, presumably, putting restraints on soft money. The reform bills now stalled in Congress include such restraints, as well as several other commendable measures.

The president has one sure way to silence the critics: Make a point of publicly getting back behind the effort to overhaul campaign-spending and thus show that his earlier reformist rhetoric wasn't hollow after all.

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