Campaign Finance Reformers Face Big Hurdle: High Court Series: The 96 Campaign

Article excerpt

Alleged campaign-finance abuses by Democrats and Republicans alike have emerged as a major issue in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, sparking new calls for reform.

But calls for reform - either by politicians or by the public - may hit a snag because of consistent opposition to reform measures by a majority of the US Supreme Court.

Since the 1970s, the high court has ruled repeatedly that the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and political association for campaign contributors and candidates. These freedoms, the court has ruled, outweigh the risk of corruption to the political process from large campaign contributions and the influence of special interests. The court agrees that corporate contributions can be regulated. But the justices have refused to extend similar restrictions to political action committees (PACs) - major conduits for campaign contributions - or to independent expenditures of so-called "soft money" by political parties. "We are not aware of any special dangers of corruption associated with political parties that tip the constitutional balance in a different direction," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a June 1996 majority decision that, in effect, paved the way for the ballooning amounts of soft money contributed to political parties during the current campaign season. The debate over campaign-finance reform has historically been dominated by advocacy groups such as Common Cause. The group seeks to limit what it views as attempts by wealthy individuals and organizations to literally buy political influence by making campaign contributions. Dole boards the bandwagon This week GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole joined in the call for reform. He is hoping that press reports about questionable fund-raising activities by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will help propel him into the White House. President Clinton is countering by accusing Mr. Dole of engaging in questionable fund-raising of his own. A Clinton campaign advertisement says Dole and the Republican Party accepted $2.4 million in contributions from foreign oil, tobacco, and drug companies. Contributions from foreign citizens or companies are illegal under US election laws. This newest debate over campaign-finance tactics has arisen after press accounts of the fund-raising activities of John Huang, a former Commerce Department official who is on paid leave from his campaign-finance job at the DNC. …