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Hearings and Donors

Have the campaign-finance follies of 1996 caused you, like others, to throw today's political fund appeals into the wastebasket? If so, both scrabbling parties would like to know what the Senate's just-begun campaign-finance hearings could do to change your mind.

We doubt that more of the partisanship in this week's opening statements will do the trick. Nor will more immunity bargaining by prospective witnesses such as Democratic mega-fund-raiser John Huang. Immunity should be a clear-cut exchange for information available in no other way. The immunity must not interfere with Justice Department investigations, as it has sometimes done in the past.

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More promising hearing outcomes might include:

1. Tracing the '96 Democratic campaign's alleged wrongful solicitation and foreign influence to individuals operating without party or leadership approval. Ditto when the hearings, as promised, turn to less-publicized allegations about the GOP. If it turns out that any erring subordinates acted with overt or tacit organizational approval, the organizations could repent and reform. Such a show of responsibility might encourage honest citizens who want to participate in the system.

2. The hearings could elicit full cooperation from the White House and all the other institutions involved. This might spark renewed political participation by the public even before any necessary mea culpas and regeneration.

3. The hearings could spur languishing campaign-finance reform legislation. Bills in the House and Senate would require the legality and ethics in money-raising that worthy representatives of the people practice without special laws. (As it is, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found Clinton/Democratic fund-raising is considered "legal but ethically questionable" by 55 percent of voters, while 62 percent describe Republican fund-raising in the same way.)

As long as existing laws are widely ignored, a call for new laws can seem a diversion. President Clinton began his second term demanding campaign-reform legislation on his desk by the fourth of July. He has not exactly been shooting off rockets for it in the intervening six months. Last month Mr. Clinton did ask the Federal Election Commission to ban the limitless "soft money" that parties can solicit from corporations, labor unions, and individuals, and that has shown itself subject to abuse. His request was a diversion from campaign-reform legislation, said one congressional reformer.

But citizens who want to do their part don't have to wait for all the genuine and cosmetic reform efforts to be sorted out. They can help democracy work by choosing reliable candidates and backing them individually. Gifts to an individual candidate would be in the "hard money" category, subject to election-law limits. The giver would have a known person to support and to hold accountable.

And maybe help really is at hand in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings. Chairman Fred Thompson of Tennessee is one of three Republicans supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform bill. Now in the majority party, he inspired confidence as minority counsel during the Watergate hearings years ago. He recalls what Chairman Sam Ervin of those hearings said: If you draw a good picture of a cow, you don't have to write the word "cow" under it. Maybe that should be "cash cow" today. In any case, a convincing picture might bring straying campaign contributors back to the fold.

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