A Soft Money Cease-Fire

We welcome Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio's Sept. 23 agreement to refrain from the use of unregulated "soft-money" contributions to their Senate campaigns in New York. No candidate would voluntarily refrain from using such contributions without a belief that the public wants big money out of politics. The agreement should therefore embolden politicians to call for the elimination of soft money in their campaigns as part of campaign finance reform. The thorny issues that still threaten the New York agreement, however, will pose equally strong barriers to reform at the national level.

Voluntary soft-money restraints had been a long time coming in the New York race, which is the object of immense interest (and the target of immense contributions) by outsiders. Because soft money contributions-- money given to political parties for "party building" activites--are unlimited they are a favorite tool of special interests hoping to exert influence on the political process. An unprecedented $342 million of soft money has already been spent throughout the nation in this election year. But both sides in New York wanted the reformer's mantle, and Lazio's posturing at the first debate, although puerile, gave the issue added urgency. Clinton's delays may have hurt her credibility, but as she will be the more disadvantaged by the agreement--she had far more soft money at her disposal, and has raised less hard money than Lazio--she also displayed the most courage in agreeing.

However, the deal should not be seen as a cure-all. It covers only television and radio advertising expenditures, not other campaign expenses such as get-out-the-vote efforts. Although the latter may seem a nobler cause, the need to solicit funds would be no less corrupting. The enforcement provisions are incomplete: Once one campaign violates the deal, the other would be allowed to respond "proportionately," a phrase that seems likely to send the campaigns careening into a spiral of escalating counter-spending and accusations.


Yet the most worrisome consequences may come from the issue that nearly broke the deal: expenditures by independent groups. Such "issue ads," paid for by groups such as the AFL-CIO or NRA, or even by individuals, could play a greater role in future campaigns as direct expenditures by candidates or parties decrease. Both Clinton and Lazio have asked such groups to refrain from advertising on their behalf, but there is no guarantee that the groups will do so. It is also unclear how widely this prohibition should apply: although Clinton was unrealistic in her demands that several groups supporting her be exempt from the deal, she is correct that the pro-Clinton Sierra Club and the pro-Lazio "Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton" are different beasts.

Under the First Amendment, a federal soft-money ban would be powerless to stop truly independent issue ads--nor should such advertisements pose a threat to the integrity of campaigns. However, there is a strong danger that so-called independent groups may in fact have links to candidates or parties, and drawing the lines will be a difficult and politically wrenching task. Nevertheless, these difficulties should not prevent other politicians, notably our current presidential candidates, from adopting the New York deal as their own. On the same note, they should not slow the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill and similar efforts to keep unlimited and unregulated soft money out of politics forever.

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