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Clinton and 'Soft Money'

Yes, we've said it before. But Bill Clinton's latest tactical thrust at campaign-finance reform gives us an opportunity to say it again: Close the "soft money" loophole.

That's the money funneled voluminously into party coffers, supposedly for use in "party building" and getting out the vote. In practice, most of it is used for party-sponsored media ads that clearly promote particular candidates. Thus the current law's limits on individual and corporate donations to candidates are nimbly sidestepped.

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The soft money flowing through the parties into last year's presidential, congressional, and state campaigns topped $260 million. A large chunk of that went into the Clinton campaign, from sources getting ever closer scrutiny. To boot, the president and vice president are still soliciting soft dollars. Perhaps to deflect criticism, Mr. Clinton has proposed that the Federal Election Commission ban soft money by regulatory fiat.

This tactic has the virtue of immediacy. If the commission can be persuaded to act, it would be a useful step - especially since campaign-reform legislation in Congress has slipped back into partisan bickering and incumbent self-interest. Momentum toward cleaning up campaign finances is welcome, from any source.

But reliance on the FEC has obvious drawbacks too. That body has never been a strong enforcement tool. Congress regularly deprives it of resources needed to monitor national campaigns. And its makeup - three Democrats, three Republicans, typically people with long party ties - tends to block decisive action. It's doubtful the commission will rally around Clinton's proposed soft-money ban.

Strong federal legislation to rule out soft money and fix other shortcomings in current law would be much preferable. Some proponents of wider reform, such as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, object that a focus on soft money alone smells of politics, since it wouldn't stop the independent campaign expenditures by labor unions that particularly help Democrats.

That's another channel of campaign excess needing attention. But soft money is the big leak, and even if the president's move has little hope of practical realization, and carries more than a little taint of hypocrisy, it helps keep the issue before the public as a matter calling for tangible reform, not just partisan finger-pointing.

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