Questionable campaign-finance practices have reached an all-time
high, as both Democrats and Republicans scramble to make the most
of gaping legal loopholes that critics say threaten to end
meaningful regulation of federal elections.
Experts in campaign finance say the current election season is
unparalleled in the use of "creative" techniques to inject millions
of dollars into key contests.
Critics say the mixing of big money and politics is undermining
the integrity of the electoral process. They cite the current
controversy over a $452,000 contribution by an Indonesian couple to
the Democratic Party as an example of a campaign-finance system out
But with the presidential and congressional campaigns in full
swing, experts say both major parties seem intent on collecting and
spending as much money as possible, regardless of the appearance
that the democratic process itself is being offered up for sale.
"The new rule of 1996 is there are no rules," says Larry Sabato,
a campaign finance expert and political science professor at the
University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "The era of campaign
regulation is over."
Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project in
Washington likens the current system of tattered regulations to a
wedge of Swiss cheese. "When it comes to laws, there are more holes
than cheese now," he says.
At the center of the campaign-finance debate is the use of "soft
money," contributions that are routed through the political parties
rather than directly to a particular campaign, where they would be
subject to spending limits and disclosure requirements.
For example, under federal election laws the Clinton and Dole
campaigns must abide by a $62-million cap on election spending. But
that hasn't stopped the Democratic and Republican Parties from
supplementing their candidates' campaign efforts with expenditures
of their own.
Donald Simon, executive vice president of the watchdog group
Common Cause, says that as of last April both parties had raised
$140 million in soft money for use in supporting their candidates.
"All of this money is illegal under federal law, and it is being
laundered through the political parties through the back door to
affect federal elections," says Mr. Simon.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive
Politics in Washington, estimates that by the November election
both parties will have funneled $250 million of soft money into the
presidential campaigns alone.
The money includes contributions from corporations, wealthy
individuals, unions, and lobbyists - most of whom are forbidden by
election laws from making direct contributions to a presidential
Those regulations were aimed at preventing the election process
from becoming swamped in special-interest money given by
contributors who want to gain influence and access after a
candidate is in office.
Party officials defend the practice of accepting and using the
funds. US Supreme Court decisions, they say, establish that
political parties have a First Amendment right to spend their money
supporting the candidate of their choice. …