WASHINGTON - Traditionally, the public battle over soft money in American politics has revolved around the issue of buying and selling government influence.
Campaign finance reform advocates believe these unlimited campaign contributions are corrupting our democracy while defenders of soft money argue that it represents constitutionally protected free speech.
What has been mostly lost in this debate, however, is the dramatic extent to which the soft money system has turned into a political extortion racket.
Soft money fund raising today often involves the systematic coercion - both implicit and explicit - by officeholders of huge sums from donors with matters pending before the government.
While big givers such as the tobacco industry and trial lawyers continue to ensure that influence-buying is thriving in Washington, many other donors are now caught in an extortion trap.
As national business leader Edward Kangas, chairman of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, has said, "In many cases it's a shakedown and [business leaders] have no choice but to give. ... Congress can have a major impact on business. The solicitors know it, and we know it. The threat may be veiled, but the message is clear: Failing to donate could hurt your company. What has been called legalized bribery looks like extortion to us."
Three major developments have combined to affect the character of soft money in American politics. Soft money fund raising has become a 24/7 affair. Never-ending fund-raising pressures are being applied to potential donors with business before the government.
The requests for huge contributions keep coming and coming, and the price tag "for doing business in the neighborhood" keeps going up and up. And there's no such thing as satisfying the collectors.
The latest gambit comes from Terry McAuliffe, the chief money hustler for President Clinton and the Democrats.
Mr. McAuliffe recently orchestrated a self-styled "populist" fundraising event for the Democrats to "honor" President Clinton: a blue jeans-and-boots barbecue, with an overall take of $26 million and a top price ticket of $500,000.
There is no end in sight to the obscene greed now driving political money chasing in Washington. A record-setting half-billion dollars in soft money contributions is projected for the November elections, twice the amount given in 1996. The number of entities chasing huge contributions has multiplied and the time frame during which these funds are solicited has increased, greatly intensifying the pressures to give.
When the soft money explosion first began in 1988, the two major party presidential nominees used their national party committees to solicit $100,000 contributions during the summer and fall of the presidential campaign.
Now there are six collection arms systematically soliciting these big contributions year in and year out from the same pool of donors. Each major party has three separate committees, representing presidential, House and Senate candidates, aggressively soliciting big contributions.
If you're a corporation with major interests in Washington, chances are you can count on being "hit up" by all six of these committees - constantly - since neither party sees ideological constraints when it comes to the pursuit of big money.
What a soft money donor really needs in 2000 is a "Safe House." Any restraints in the pursuit of big money are gone. And the demand for "tribute" has become quite explicit.
Mr. Clinton's massive campaign finance abuses in 1996 were followed in 1997 by Republican leaders bluntly telling Business Roundtable leaders to stop contributing to Democrats and start giving more to Republicans or they would pay the policy consequences in Congress.
The current chief Senate fund raisers, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, are not exactly known for their subtle ways.
The king of the take-no-prisoners approach to extracting contributions, however, is House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a man who takes great pride in the tactics of intimidation. Mr. DeLay has revived President Richard M. Nixon's notorious "enemies list" approach to American politics and has made it clear that when it comes to campaign contributions there are direct legislative consequences for being his "enemy."
And, as one of Mr. DeLay's advisers has been quoted as saying, "We don't waste Tom on small donors. We don't ask him to make $1,000 calls. He makes six-figure calls."
Many donors are fed up with the political extortion they now face. Charles Kolb, president of the Committee of Economic Development, an organization of business and civic leaders from around the country who support a ban on soft money, says, "The business community, by and large, has been the provider of soft money. These people are saying: We're tired of being hit up and shaken down. Politics ought to be about something besides hitting up people for more and more money."
It's hard to know which practice is worse - the buying and selling of influence over government policies or the abuse of public office to shake down and extort donors. Fortunately we don't have to choose.
We can get rid of both of these affronts to democracy by banning soft money.
Fred Wertheimer is the founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan public policy organization that promotes campaign finance reform. He previously served for 14 years as chief executive officer of Common Cause, the nonpartisan citizens' lobby.