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RIGHT ON CAMPAIGN FUNDING



Published: Wed, June 27, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: The Supreme Court this week upheld restrictions on the campaign expenditures that political parties can make in behalf of their candidates. The court ruled 5 to 4 that the limits are legitimate efforts to prevent corruption or its appearance, and not violations of the First Amendment.

The welcome albeit narrow decision prevents another major hole from being punched in shaky current law. It also validates and may help improve the prospects of the effort in Congress to strengthen that law. The Senate has passed and the House is scheduled to take up next month legislation to ban the so-called soft-money system whereby the parties are used as straws to raise and spend in behalf of candidates vast amounts that the candidates are forbidden to raise and spend themselves. Critics have called the ban an unconstitutional infringement on political speech. Though the issues aren't quite the same, Monday's decision took much of the steam out of that argument.

Justice David Souter wrote for the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas was joined in dissent by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The court had ruled previously in this same case, from Colorado, that independent expenditures by parties on behalf of candidates could not be limited. The narrow question this time around was whether that also applied to so-called coordinated expenditures. The court said those could be limited; otherwise parties could too easily be turned into conduits for circumventing the law, in that they could be used to give to candidates at one remove funds that could not be given directly.

Corrupt politics: The majority took the occasion to reaffirm the court's basic position that unconstrained campaign contributions do indeed have the capacity to corrupt politics or create the appearance of corruption, which Congress has the right to try to contain. That in spades is the rationale for the soft-money bill as well. The parties together raised about a half-billion dollars in soft money in the last election, much of it in amounts and from sources forbidden to candidates directly.

The House in the past has voted, over the opposition of the Republican leadership, to ban soft money. But then the bill had no prospect of becoming law; this time it does; and some previously supportive Democrats are having second thoughts about it. Republican opponents are trying to persuade them not so much to vote no as to vote for amendments that will force the bill into conference, where it can be turned into a nullity or killed. The hesitant Democrats include members of the black and Hispanic caucuses, who argue among other things that soft money plays a crucial role in getting out the vote in their districts.

But the purpose of most of this money isn't getting out the vote; it's buying influence, and that's a game at which the constituents of these members are bound to come in last. This is a system in which too often money buys or seems to buy results. Their constituents lack such money. Do they really want to argue that these Americans are helped by the system's perpetuation?




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