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Soft Money, Hard Politics

IT was an idle fancy, of course; but for one hopeful moment this spring one could imagine that President Bush might tighten the valves through which torrents of special-interest cash sluice into the American political system. Congress had passed a campaign-reform bill that capped spending in congressional races, introduced some public funding of such races, reduced the influence of political action committees, and imposed new restrictions on the so-called "soft money" that pours into political coffers. B ush vetoed the bill on May 9, however, and the money flows on.

Mr. Bush based his veto on his opposition to spending caps and public funding of campaigns. Might it also be that the president was still basking in the glow of a GOP fund-raising dinner just two weeks earlier? At the annual President's Dinner April 28 in Washington, 4,300 well-heeled guests - mainly corporate executives - had set a single-event record by donating $9 million in "soft money" to the Republican Party.

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Soft money refers to political contributions that aren't covered by federal campaign-finance restrictions. Whereas individuals may give only $1,000 to individual presidential candidates and only $2,000 to congressional hopefuls, they may give unlimited amounts to party organizations ostensibly for voter-registration drives, promotion, and get-out-the-vote efforts. Similarly, corporations and labor unions, which are prohibited from contributing directly to candidates except through regulated PACs, may ant e up soft money without restrictions.

Democrats hustle for soft money as shamelessly as Republicans do. The six-figure donations to some of the "Keating Five" senators went as soft money. Each party spent more than $20 million in soft money on the 1988 presidential election.

Soft money isn't just a loophole in the campaign-finance laws: It's an Alaska pipeline for special-interest dollars buying "access" to politicians. Regrettably, Bush left the sluice gates wide open, and this election year the money is rushing through.

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