Going soft on soft money issue

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Not surprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is busy painting the Democrats as the devil for their insistence on blocking other legislation until he grants them a floor debate on campaign finance reform.

The latest jockeying came the other day over the successful Democratic ploy of talking to death a six-year reauthorization of federal highway and other transportation spending. The best Mr. Lott could do was muster 52 of the 60 votes needed to shut up the Democrats.


When the National Governors' Association chairman, Republican Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio, wrote Mr. Lott warning of dire consequences to the states' road and highway safety programs if the money was not forthcoming, Mr. Lott blamed the failure to approve it on "political games" by the Democrats.

Horse trading


He was certainly correct in that assessment. Part of the game was a call by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for a six-month extension of the current highway spending authority, a Democratic gambit opposed by Mr. Lott that would shift the blame to the Republicans for holding up the funds. Such an extension already has been voted in the House.

It can be argued that the Democrats in their filibuster tactic against most of the remaining Senate agenda for this year are blowing into the wind of public opinion. For all the interest inside the Washington beltway in the Senate and House committee investigations into the 1996 election fund-raising shenanigans, public-opinion polls continue to indicate that voters are not unduly aroused by the issue of campaign finance reform.

But that is hardly the point. While the Senate hearings chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee have particularly come in for criticism as failing to produce clear-cut indictments of criminal wrongdoing, they certainly have demonstrated that the whole fund-raising process is rotten to the core.

The hearings have spotlighted a serious ethical collapse in the relationship between candidates and the fat cats who seek access and favorable action from them, at the highest levels. The fund-raising excesses of President Clinton and Vice

President Al Gore in 1995-96 have been the most conspicuous and odorous, from Mr. Clinton's granting of Lincoln Bedroom sleep-overs to Mr. Gore's stroking of Asian contributors at that Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.

Dirty hands

But the Republicans have been shown also not to have clean hands, to the credit of Republican Thompson, who has tried to provide at least a semblance of balance in the hearings. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the committee, calls the hearings "a partisan donnybrook," but there have been a lot worse.

Mr. Lott, in fact, is said to be irate over Mr. Thompson's failure to make the hearings more partisan, and he appears to be cool to a request from the committee chairman to extend the hearings past the Dec. 31 deadline insisted upon by the Democrats.


If Mr. Lott and other Republicans are disappointed that the Senate hearings have produced less than a clear indictment of ** the Democrats, they have good reason. Thanks to some of the GOP soft-money tactics to bolster Bob Dole's hopes, though considerably less onerous than the Democratic finaglings, the Democrats' alibi that "everybody does it" has achieved some traction.

That impression likely accounts for the apparent public apathy about campaign finance reform -- an attitude that it may well be needed, but with both parties guilty there's no hope anything constructive will be done.

For this reason, it's important that the Democrats, and the few Republicans like Mr. Thompson and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, are pressing so stubbornly for a Senate floor debate on campaign finance reform.

It is true that the McCain-Feingold bill has been watered down excessively, but its ban on soft money -- unregulated funds ostensibly for party-building but used blatantly to help the Clinton and Dole campaigns in 1996 -- is a worthwhile start. A good airing on the Senate floor may not survive the majority Republican opposition to it, but such an airing might begin to arouse a lethargic public lulled into slumber by the evidence that "everybody does it."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/31/97