Reform's Critical Mess
Vice President Al Gore is sinking deeper into a bog of tainted fund-raising, Attorney General Janet Reno has flicked at least the initial special prosecutor switch, and the hearings chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee are exposing dubious practices by Democratic Party leaders. This may be enough, at long last, to arouse Americans to overhaul the corruption-prone campaign finance system.
That is where the various plot lines in Washington's political fund-raising whodunit should lead - to reform that protects everyone's right to participate in electoral politics, but greatly reduces the opportunities for abuse.
The need for reform is boldly underlined by the Thompson panel's questioning this week of former Democratic National Committee chair Donald Fowler. While protesting his innocence of any wrongdoing, Mr. Fowler made it clear that big donors to the party did indeed purchase favors - in the form of access to administration decisionmakers and, possibly, special intervention by the party chief on their behalf.
It's still unclear if any laws were violated, but patently clear the Democratic Party's own ethical guidelines were ignored.
Fowler said what he did was no more than politicians and party officials on all sides do, attending to issues raised by supporters. Perhaps. But that's all the more reason to tighten the system and cut off a gaping source of public cynicism - the perception that big money drives politics and policy, while the average, honest voter sits on the sidelines.
Reform should mean, above all, an end to the so-called "soft money" loophole. Most of the questionable practices that have come to light from the 1996 campaign hinge on "soft" dollars - contributed in unlimited quantity to party organizations for so-called "party building," such as get-out-the-vote drives. These dollars are supposedly kept distinct from "hard" contributions intended to aid specific candidates, which are limited by law.
We've learned, now, that not all the money raised by Mr. Gore on his White House phone was "soft." In fact, the Democrats seem to have made a habit of diverting soft dollars to hard ones that could be used for such purposes as Clinton-Gore TV ads. This sleight of hand appears, months later, to have put some donors over the legal limit for contributions - much to their disgust. The party's mad rush to acquire money in '96 may yet poison its own financial wells.
More immediately, the soft-to-hard money revelations heighten the probability of specific violations of law and give the attorney general far less room to argue against appointing a special prosecutor.
Mr. Gore's defenders maintain he knew nothing of the diversion of some money to "hard" uses. They may be right. The campaign's frantic quest for money and victory make it difficult to discern who knew what. That may also be said of the clearly illegal fund-raising that took place at a Los Angeles area Buddhist temple visited by Gore.
That money was returned, but what remains from this episode and others is an indelible impression of a system gone awry. Congress has no shortage of reformers who want to improve the system, despite powerful opposition. What they most need is a groundswell of public backing for their efforts. Let it come.