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Money in, influence out // THE INDONESIAN CONNECTION

Our normally garrulous president hasn't been eager to talk about the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Democratic Party has received from various individuals and businesses associated with the Indonesia-based Lippo group. And who can blame him? Even if, as administration officials insist, the contributions have not violated federal campaign finance laws, they vividly demonstrate just how laughably inadequate those laws have become.

The president's Republican critics aren't entirely comfortable latching on to this issue, either. The Republicans have stuffed even more so-called soft money into their pockets during this election cycle than the Democrats have.

The major parties have more or less equally corrupted the system, but give the Democrats credit for corrupting it in exotic new ways. While the Republicans still seem content with funneling millions from American-as-apple-pie names such as Philip Morris ($1.63-million during the 18 months ending June 30) and Anheuser-Busch ($281,250), the Democrats have extended their sticky fingers around the globe.

Both sides have a lot of explaining to do, but the president faces the most pressing questions: What does Indonesia's wealthy Riady family, which has had connections to Clinton since their days in Arkansas in the 1970s, expect in return for the vast sums they and their associates have contributed to the Democrats? How did Arief and Soraya Wiriadinata, Indonesian immigrants living a seemingly middle-class lifestyle in suburban Virginia, come to contribute $425,000 to the Democratic National Committee before disappearing back to Indonesia? Why was Webster Hubbell, a longtime Clinton confidant and former top official in the Justice Department, hired by one of Riady's businesses just before he went tojail on fraud charges? And do these generous campaign contributions have anything to do with the Clinton administration's extraordinarily tolerant treatment of Indonesia's repressive government?

Over the past two decades, the major parties have exploited larger and larger loopholes in the campaign finance laws intended to limit the influence of special interests. Those laws place strict limits on the size of contributions an individual or business can make directly to a presidential or congressional campaign. However, there are virtually no limits on what can be contributed indirectly through the parties or "independent" organizations.

Beyond that, it is legal for the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations to take advantage of those loopholes, provided their contributions come from their domestic revenues. And foreign nationals such as the Wiriadinatas also can legally contribute if they are legal residents of the United States. The Democrats' Indonesian connection illustrates the special problems in determining the true origins of such contributions. Wealthy foreigners wishing to manipulate our political system can easily funnel money through U.S. subsidiaries or foreign nationals living in this country.

In the end, big money from Lippo can hardly corrupt the system any more thoroughly than it has already been besmirched by big money from defense contractors, securities interests, trial lawyers, the tobacco industry and dozens of other domestic sources. However, the Lippo revelations may turn out to be the embarrassment that leads to serious public pressure for reform.

The abuses of our campaign finance laws cannot be remedied by mere Lipposuction. Only radical surgery will remove the rot from a system that has been corrupted by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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