Campaign Finance Reformers Face Big Hurdle: High Court

Alleged campaign-finance abuses by Democrats and Republicans alike have emerged as a major issue in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, sparking new calls for reform.

But calls for reform - either by politicians or by the public - may hit a snag because of consistent opposition to reform measures by a majority of the US Supreme Court.

Since the 1970s, the high court has ruled repeatedly that the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and political association for campaign contributors and candidates. These freedoms, the court has ruled, outweigh the risk of corruption to the political process from large campaign contributions and the influence of special interests.

The court agrees that corporate contributions can be regulated. But the justices have refused to extend similar restrictions to political action committees (PACs) - major conduits for campaign contributions - or to independent expenditures of so-called "soft money" by political parties.

"We are not aware of any special dangers of corruption associated with political parties that tip the constitutional balance in a different direction," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a June 1996 majority decision that, in effect, paved the way for the ballooning amounts of soft money contributed to political parties during the current campaign season.

The debate over campaign-finance reform has historically been dominated by advocacy groups such as Common Cause. The group seeks to limit what it views as attempts by wealthy individuals and organizations to literally buy political influence by making campaign contributions.

Dole boards the bandwagon

This week GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole joined in the call for reform. He is hoping that press reports about questionable fund-raising activities by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will help propel him into the White House.

President Clinton is countering by accusing Mr. Dole of engaging in questionable fund-raising of his own. A Clinton campaign advertisement says Dole and the Republican Party accepted $2.4 million in contributions from foreign oil, tobacco, and drug companies. Contributions from foreign citizens or companies are illegal under US election laws.

This newest debate over campaign-finance tactics has arisen after press accounts of the fund-raising activities of John Huang, a former Commerce Department official who is on paid leave from his campaign-finance job at the DNC. An investigation by the Federal Election Commission is pending but is not likely to be completed before Election Day.

Mr. Huang, who specialized in fund-raising in the Asian-American community, reportedly solicited $450,000 in contributions from an Indonesian couple living in Virginia who had family ties to a major banking conglomerate based in Jakarta. Investigators are seeking to determine whether the couple posed as a front to conceal contributions to the DNC from the conglomerate, the Lippo Group. Prior to his work in the administration, Huang was an executive at a Lippo Group company.

Integrity of electoral process

Dole says his campaign-reform plan aims to protect the integrity of the electoral process by closing election-law loopholes and restricting the campaign activities of special-interest groups, including foreigners.

He is calling for the formation of a bipartisan commission to consider barring foreign residents of the US from contributing to American campaigns, halting the use of soft-money contributions to political parties, and curtailing the influence of PACs.

Civil libertarians and legal experts are warning that Dole's plan would run afoul of prior Supreme Court rulings. The Dole plan, like previous reform efforts, undermines the fundamental right of Americans to engage in political activity, they say.

To these experts, PACs are a vital part of a democracy. Attempts to restrain PAC activities and to halt the flow of soft money to political parties are a form of government-sponsored censorship that they say the US Supreme Court will not tolerate.

"PACs are not the political equivalent of the devil," says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "They represent our pluralism, and any desire to get rid of PACs would be an unconstitutional infringement on their right to organize."

"It isn't a loophole; it is protection of free speech," says Roy Schotland, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

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