Funds From Afar

The bubbling controversy over political contributions by a wealthy Indonesian family to the Democratic Party - and hence to the Clinton campaign - raises a number of concerns about foreign influence, big-money politics, and the effectiveness of US election laws.

It is by no means clear that the Democrats went over the line toward illegality in accepting these funds. But the appearance of influence-purchasing by overseas financiers with banking and other interests in the US raises questions too serious to be put down by pat denials of wrongdoing from Democratic officials.

The relationship between President Clinton and the billionaire Riady family from Indonesia extends back to Mr. Clinton's days as governor of Arkansas, when James Riady, son of family patriarch Mochtar Riady, was involved in running Little Rock's Worthen Bank. But no evidence has surfaced linking this relationship, or the campaign funds that flowed from it, to US policy toward Indonesia.

In fact, the Clinton administration has taken a harder line toward the human rights abuses of the Suharto regime than its predecessors.

But the assumption that large contributions - in the case of the Riadys and their associates, a total approaching $1 million - buy access and influence remains.

Even more to the point, how does all this square with US laws intended to limit the impact of big money on US elections? By law, contributions can't come directly from foreign businesses or individuals. US subsidiaries of foreign companies and foreign nationals who are legal residents in the US, can, however, legally chip in. Both parties have on occasion drunk at this well, though the Democrats' Indonesian connection may be the most flagrant example to date. Policing this area is tough. The Federal Election Commission is understaffed for the task. Occasionally journalists may uncover wrongdoing - as with the Los Angeles Times story that forced the Democrats to return $250,000 contributed by a Korean firm.

The ultimate adjustment will have to come in the law itself. Both the Clinton and Dole campaign organizations have recently been castigated by Common Cause and other critics for hugely exceeding the legal limitations on their spending. They do it by having contributions in excess of those limits go to their parties' national committees rather than to the campaigns. This "soft money" loophole is gaping enough to accommodate all manner of contributions, including those from foreign billionaires.

This current controversy figures in Dole's "character issue" offensive against Clinton. The core concern, however, is the rot in the country's campaign finance system. Reform of that system - which gets endless lip service from the major parties and no action - should get real attention from both candidates Clinton and Dole.

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