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Hard on 'Soft Money'

While turnout may not be what we'd like, and the quality of campaign debate sometimes fell short, the election of 1996 will unquestionably top all others in one respect: the amount of money spent to elect people to office.

No surprise here. The costs of running a campaign have steadily risen, but that's only one factor in the heightened dollar flow. More important, the two major parties have elevated the exploitation of campaign-finance law loopholes to a fine art.

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Can't those loopholes be closed, so that the system can function as it was meant to - as a means of removing the taint of corruption and influence-buying? Isn't that the logical follow-through after the charges of unethical or illegal fund-raising flung about in this campaign? The three leading presidential candidates - Clinton, Dole, and Perot - are all on record calling for reform.

But there's a big reason, and a bigger reason, why the logic of reform still faces obstacles.

First, the big reason: The Supreme Court has held, most recently in June, that campaign contributions are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Limits on contributions are thus constitutionally suspect. Longtime reformers argue, however, that the court has left plenty of room to regulate such abuses as the flood of so-called "soft money" into party organizations. In June, the court specified that in congressional races such money couldn't be coordinated with the campaigns of individual candidates. The parties have easily skirted that restriction.

The Supreme Court's rulings have doubtless encouraged those - including such notables as Newt Gingrich - who've adopted the free-speech line of reasoning and called for more money in campaigns, not less.

Now, the bigger reason: Only a relative few reform-minded stalwarts in Congress have so far been willing to fight for real change. Both major-party establishments have a huge interest in keeping the system as is. The "soft money" that feeds into national party structures, rather than directly into the campaigns of individual candidates, gives the parties tremendous leverage to amass dollars and channel them as they choose during primary and general elections. This year, the national committees of both parties have been soaking up these funds - provided by all manner of corporate and individual donors - at an unhead-of rate. From January of last year through mid-October of this year, the parties' "soft" take totalled $207 million.

Under law, this money is intended for "party building" activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives. The Democrats interpreted that to include a nationwide advertising campaign during the primary season touting President Clinton's accomplish- ments. Perhaps that helped "build" the party, but it also clearly helped a particular candidate. Indeed, both parties allocate their "party building" funds wherever key candidates need help. This despite the law's admonition that such party activities not be coordinated with the campaigns of individual candidates.

The still-unfolding case of Democratic National Committee fund-raiser John Huang bears close watching in this regard. He was a frequent visitor at the White House during the course of the campaign. Was he involved in discussions related to those he was soliciting for funds?

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The time is ripe for a renewed push for meaningful campaign-finance reform, banning soft money and reining in PACs. That's because a wide range of people - from average voters to public-interest groups to crusading journalists to committed legislators - know that the present system breeds cynicism, creates the appearance of corruption, and corrodes public trust.

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