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Republicans are right to be outraged after Attorney General Janet Reno found no grounds to appoint an independent counsel to probe Vice President Gore's fund-raising. The only problem is that they aimed their ire at the wrong target. Instead of looking at Reno, they should have looked at the loophole-ridden campaign-finance laws that allowed her to conclude that Gore couldn't be prosecuted.

Then they should have looked in the mirror because the GOP has steadfastly refused to ban the so-called "soft money" that is at the heart of this and other campaign fund-raising controversies.

What Reno dismissed as a "circumstantial" case against Gore rested on the fact that he was at a meeting in which Democrats apparently talked about raising both "hard" and "soft" dollars for the 1996 campaign. Gore later testified that he raised only the soft version in calls from his White House office.

The distinction is important because soft money -- funds used for get-out-the-vote campaigns and other generic purposes -- is not subject to most regulations. Unlimited amounts of it can be raised on government property or anywhere else. On the other hand, hard money -- the dollars that flow into the campaigns of specific candidates -- is limited and cannot be solicited on government property.

Against that backdrop, anyone exercised because Reno could find no evidence that Gore knew some of the soft money he raised would go into hard-dollar accounts misses the bigger picture.

Banning soft money altogether would eliminate such legal hair-splitting. More importantly, it would cut the influence that lobbyists can have on the parties by greatly reducing the amount of "access" they can buy with unlimited contributions. That, in turn, would allow the average citizen's voice to carry a little more clout when policies are decided. That is what's really at issue.

With the help of moderate rank-and-file Republicans, the House finally passed a soft-money ban this year over the objections of the party leadership. However, the effort to end the abusive system of raising obscene amounts of campaign cash died in the Senate, where Republicans mounted a filibuster to kill it.

In light of long-standing GOP resistance to closing the soft-money loophole, their anger over Reno's decision would appear to have as much to do with its impact in boosting Gore's presidential chances as with any genuine concern for the sanctity of the electoral process.

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