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Campaign-Finance Loopholes Widen

Critics say questionable fund-raising tactics threaten America's entire system of regulation

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 1996



WASHINGTON

Questionable campaign-finance practices have reached an all-time high, as both Democrats and Republicans scramble to make the most of gaping legal loopholes that critics say threaten to end meaningful regulation of federal elections.

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Experts in campaign finance say the current election season is unparalleled in the use of "creative" techniques to inject millions of dollars into key contests.

Critics say the mixing of big money and politics is undermining the integrity of the electoral process. They cite the current controversy over a $452,000 contribution by an Indonesian couple to the Democratic Party as an example of a campaign-finance system out of control.

But with the presidential and congressional campaigns in full swing, experts say both major parties seem intent on collecting and spending as much money as possible, regardless of the appearance that the democratic process itself is being offered up for sale.

"The new rule of 1996 is there are no rules," says Larry Sabato, a campaign finance expert and political science professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "The era of campaign regulation is over."

Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project in Washington likens the current system of tattered regulations to a wedge of Swiss cheese. "When it comes to laws, there are more holes than cheese now," he says.

At the center of the campaign-finance debate is the use of "soft money," contributions that are routed through the political parties rather than directly to a particular campaign, where they would be subject to spending limits and disclosure requirements.

For example, under federal election laws the Clinton and Dole campaigns must abide by a $62-million cap on election spending. But that hasn't stopped the Democratic and Republican Parties from supplementing their candidates' campaign efforts with expenditures of their own.

Donald Simon, executive vice president of the watchdog group Common Cause, says that as of last April both parties had raised $140 million in soft money for use in supporting their candidates.

"All of this money is illegal under federal law, and it is being laundered through the political parties through the back door to affect federal elections," says Mr. Simon.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, estimates that by the November election both parties will have funneled $250 million of soft money into the presidential campaigns alone.

The money includes contributions from corporations, wealthy individuals, unions, and lobbyists - most of whom are forbidden by election laws from making direct contributions to a presidential candidate.

Those regulations were aimed at preventing the election process from becoming swamped in special-interest money given by contributors who want to gain influence and access after a candidate is in office.