This spring has sprouted campaign dollars along with the grass and dandelions. Much of this money is legitimate, but more is of a weedy, skirt-the-law variety that ought to be rooted out by reform.
Soft money is pouring into party coffers in record-breaking amounts. Common Cause, the watchdog group that tracks campaign funding, reports that in the first quarter of this year Republican and Democratic party organizations collected $160.5 million in soft-money contributions. That compares with $84.6 million raised in the first three months of 1996 in the last presidential election cycle. Before the year is over, soft money could total half a billion dollars.
This political bounty is supposed to go for "party building" activities like voter registration drives. That's why it's not subject to the caps limiting "hard money" that goes directly to federal candidates. In practice, however, soft money pays for party-sponsored "issue ads" that pull few punches in knocking opponents and boosting the party's favorite. Anything short of actually saying "vote for our guy" seems to pass muster.
And parties aren't the only recipients of soft money. Increasingly, political action committees organized by members of Congress exploit the soft-money loophole to aid congressional races. They collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from often undisclosed donors. The money backs candidates all over the country.
Then there's the special-interest spending. Groups are already heavily investing in TV ads that highlight an issue, but at the same time take aim at politicians who oppose the group's position (see story on page 2).
Where's all the money coming from? Largely from corporations, unions, wealthy individuals - many of whom have a direct, often financial interest in government policy. Where's it all go? Mainly into the pockets of TV station owners and political consultants who couldn't be happier with the current system.
That system of laws governing campaign finances is supposed to strike a balance between citizen participation in politics and the danger of influence peddling and other corruption posed by unlimited contributions. Because of loopholes and loose interpretations, the balance has been lost. Today there are no effective limits on the flow of money into politics.
Voters should demand that the people they elect be willing to weed out practices that invite corruption and to restore integrity to the campaign-finance system.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society