Two Sides, Same Coin

On the one hand, we have the ongoing investigation of Democratic fund-raising abuses in the 1996 campaign. For reasons increasingly inexplicable, Attorney General Janet Reno still refuses to name an independent counsel to unravel that tangle, despite GOP urgings.

On the other hand, we have House Republican leaders doing everything in their power to block a clear vote on legislation that could fix the underlying problem - namely, campaign-finance laws that allow unrestrained contributions.

These are not unrelated items. Since serious questions first arose concerning Clinton-Gore fund-raising practices, we've urged the fullest possible investigation. The all-out money quest launched by both parties during that campaign season pointed to a systemic breakdown. It wasn't surprising that rules were broken. The temptation to break them is rooted in the "soft money" loophole, which opens the way for businesses, unions, and interested individuals to contribute as much as they like, so long as it's for "party building."

Well, nothing builds a party like a big win in a presidential race, right?

If the Clinton-Gore win hinged, at least partially, on illegal fund-raising, the public has a right to know. And the only way to find out, without any taint of coverup, is through the objective agency of an independent counsel. That what's FBI Director Louis Freeh has said. And now he's joined in that view by the Justice Department lawyer appointed by Ms. Reno to head the in-house probe of the case. With these views on record, the attorney general's excuses for not acting are becoming ever flimsier.

There's nothing flimsy, however, about the House leadership's reason for blocking a bipartisan campaign-finance reform bill. Their action is set in the concrete of political self-interest. Like its now shelved counterpart in the Senate, the House bill would slam the soft-money door. Many Republicans (whose party is the reigning fund-raising champ) and Democrats have come to believe that soft money is something they can't live without in the age of media-driven campaigns. In a word, they're addicted.

It's in the country's interest to break that addiction. And a thorough investigation of the abuses of 1996, teamed with strong legislation to avoid such abuses in the future, is the way to break it.

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