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Political 'soft money': Buy a politician by any other name

Money is pouring into U.S. political campaigns in record amounts. Some is legal, much probably not, little of it ethical, little of it supportive of true democracy. Cynicism grows across the land. Big money bribery is the way of life. But folks may be slowly waking up. Or so we can hope.

In the 1970s, big money had gotten out of hand. Reform legislation was passed. Faced with new limits of $2,000 per candidate for individuals and $5,000 per candidate for political-action committees (PACs) -- an amount established in 1974 and never since adjusted -- the flood of powerful interests had to find other paths.

Slowly at first and now in torrents, unethical money is pouring into candidates' pockets through what is called the "soft money" loophole: contributions to political parties rather than directly to the candidates. The law states such money can only go for "party-building activities." Forget that. You are watching the money being spent on television political commercials. They are just a little more subtle than before, smearing candidates but not directly telling the viewer how to vote.

The money, of course, goes to buy candidate favor. It's called access. Ordinary folks, who pay their full share of taxes, a mortgage, car payments and raise children don't have this access. They are viewed as people to whom nothing is owed.

This campaign season has seen "the most massive violation of campaign finance laws since Watergate," says Ann McBride of Common Cause. She has demanded that an independent prosecutor investigate both major parties. But it won't happen before the election -- or likely lead anywhere after. The powerful interests won't allow it.

Trial lawyers are the largest contributors to the Clinton campaign. They have been paid through his veto of a bipartisan bill that would have prevented nuisance suits in the securities industry. Dole's record makes him a dismal candidate to be pointing a finger. As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he routinely took money from interests with legislation under his jurisdiction.

Dole has worked to help the California-based Gallo label promote its sparkling wine to the category of a more expensive champagne. According to Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, Dole's top aide pursued the matter on a daily basis. Dole also supported a bill that eased inheritance taxes for one family -- the Gallos. And guess which family has been pouring money into the Dole campaign.

For a perspective: 99.97 percent of Americans don't make political contributions of more than $200. But the other .03 percent of the population does have real political influence. It's their government -- and will remain that way until enough of us get angry enough and kick up a fuss. Have you had enough?

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996