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Hard feelings toward soft money

Since January, the pace of inactivity on Capitol Hill has varied between sluggish and lagging. The U.S. House, which has officially and courageously approved the Ten Commandments, may yet endorse school prayer. As one cynic observes, that would put religion back in the classroom and permit the churches to devote more attention to their primary task of fund raising.

Things had gotten so dull in the Capitol that devoted C-Span watchers were actually switching to the Weather Channel.

But last week, that all changed. The Republican Senate majority, having stupidly cast itself as the status-quo defenders of the scandalous and corrupt campaign-finance system, at the last minute came to its senses. The Senate unanimously agreed to give its Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, wider discretion to investigate "improper" in addition to illegal activities of congressional as well as presidential campaigns. As the old song goes, this could be the start of something big.

If the Thompson committee does thoroughly examine the unregulated world of "soft money," the enormous legal loophole that permits rich corporations, big labor unions and very wealthy individuals to make unlimited political contributions, it will have performed an invaluable act of public education.

Soft-money contributions to the two national party committees more than doubled from a total of $122.3-million in 1991-92 to $263.5-million in 1995-96. Illegal contributions, which have gotten most of the press attention, amount to pocket change when compared to the big soft money, where the moral squalor of today's politics resides.

By law, the maximum contribution any individual citizen can make to a candidate for federal office is $1,000. During the 1996 election cycle, according to Ellen Miller of Public Campaign, who keeps close track, fewer than 0.25 percent of all Americans made direct individual contributions of $200 or more to any congressional candidate. Soft money offers a way for probably the richest 0.1 percent of wealthiest Americans to directly support presidential candidates in the fall elections.

Televised Senate hearings could effectively document the Democrats' and the Republicans' all but total dependence on soft money from wealthy interests. Voter outrage at both Washington politicians and their big-money benefactors could be one direct consequence.

If and when this spreading of the ugly truth does take place _ during our era of increasing inequality in income both before and after taxes _ then how do you think public attitudes might change toward a cut in capital-gains taxes, which would disproportionately benefit the richest 1 percent of all Americans?

Washington politicians in both parties remain hobbled by tin ears. There's evidence, in the very same week, the FBI reveals that it had warned U.S. politicians about Chinese efforts to buy political influence through money to American candidates. Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Al Gore independently announced their overseas itineraries. Both political warriors are going where? That's right: China.

Soon, elected politicians in Washington will confront an unpleasant truth. There is no constituency anywhere in the United States outside of Washington in favor of retaining six-figure soft money contributions in our public life. No waitress, schoolteacher, computer programer or flight attendant will flock to the standard of any public defender of soft money. In fact, the only constituency for soft money is to be found among the politicians who are addicted to it and some of the givers who thrive on the influence their big checks buy with officeholders.

True, the hearings have yet to begin. But stay tuned. When the public learns the full sordid story behind soft money, it could make for a major riot. And more important, it could make some real history.

Mark Shields; distributed by Creators Syndicate