Dual Purpose Hearings

The Senate's probe of Clinton-Gore campaign practices has unearthed a lot, but it hasn't determined blame or responsibility. That task should fall to the independent counsels that appear ever more likely to pick up the trail where the senators and the Justice Department leave off.

But the hearings held by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee may have a more direct role in another kind of denouement: fixing the campaign finance system. The committee has now shifted its spotlight away from the alleged misdeeds of the Clinton reelection team and toward systemic problems.

In fact, the two realms of inquiry are inseparable. What has come to light through the hearings has repeatedly underscored the need for reform. Who can forget the colorful testimony of oil-pipeline promoter Roger Tamraz? This irrepressible donor boasted about buying access to high places and quipped that if the door was ever barred, he'd come through the window.

But no need, Mr. Tamraz. At present the door is wide open, and it's known as the "soft money" loophole. That entrance for big money allows unlimited corporate, union, or individual contributions for "party-building." This term is supposed to denote such activities as get-out-the-vote drives. But it has been stretched to include just about anything a party chooses. The Democrats regularly diverted dollars solicited as soft money into "hard" accounts for use by candidates.

Senate reformers John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin have scaled back their campaign finance legislation in order to zero in on soft money. They would forbid its use in federal elections. This is the logical place for reform to begin, since every issue probed by the hearings - from illegal foreign donations to fund-raising phone calls from the White House - is linked to the steadily increasing flow of soft dollars.

A narrower McCain-Feingold bill has a better prospect of passage. But it will still face fierce opposition from lawmakers who want no restrictions on the raising or spending of campaign funds. They claim such restrictions violate free speech. But the Supreme Court's interpretation of that issue leaves plenty of room for reasonable regulation of the campaign funding system.

Meanwhile, the evidence of abuse stacked up by the Senate hearings (soon to be joined by hearings in the House) ought to boost both public and congressional support for reform.

Now, that related matter: tying down who did what, and why, during the fund-raising frenzy of '95 and '96. Attorney General Janet Reno's own investigators have uncovered records that indicate Mr. Clinton himself was involved in fund-raising from White House offices. "Call lists" were given him by political aides, indicating target amounts to be raised from wealthy donors. Vice President Gore has admitted he used White House phone lines for such purposes.

Did the president and vice president know that some of the money so raised was going into "hard" accounts to aid individual candidates? By the attorney general's interpretation, soliciting that kind of money on federal property triggers the law, and presumably a special prosecutor.

And the outside counsel should have leeway to probe beyond the narrow matter of White House calls. The deeper question involves possible influence buying. What are big donors getting for their dollars?

This scent of corruption - whether in the administration or in Congress - clings to the system and drives reform. That's the best argument for controls on the flow of dollars.

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