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In political circles, getting hit on isn't always desired

Traditionally, the public battle over ``soft money" in American politics has revolved around buying and selling government influence: Campaign finance reform advocates believe these unlimited campaign contributions are corrupting our democracy, while defenders of soft money argue they represent constitutionally protected free speech.

What has been mostly lost in this debate, however, is the dramatic extent to which the soft-money system has turned into a political extortion racket.

Soft-money fund raising today often involves the systematic coercion - both implicit and explicit - by officeholders of huge sums from donors with matters pending before the government. While big givers such as the tobacco industry, health care interests and the trial lawyers continue to ensure the influence-buying game is thriving in Washington, many other donors now are caught in an extortion trap.

As national business leader Edward Kangas, chairman of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has said, "In many cases it's a shakedown and [business leaders] have no choice but to give. Congress can have a major impact on business. The solicitors know it, and we know it. The threat may be veiled, but the message is clear: Failing to donate could hurt your company. What has been called legalized bribery looks like extortion to us."

Three major developments have combined to affect the character of soft money in American politics:

Relentless fund raising. Soft-money fund raising has become a 24-7 affair. Neverending fund-raising pressures are being applied to potential donors with business before the government. The requests for huge contributions keep coming and coming, and the price tag for ``doing business in the neighborhood" keeps going up. And there's no such thing as satisfying the collectors.

The latest gambit comes from Terry McAuliffe, the principal collection agent for President Clinton and the Democrats. McAuliffe has invented a new populist symbol for the Democratic Party: a blue-jeans-and-boots barbecue fund-raiser, with an overall $25 million take and a top-price ticket of $500,000.

The obscene top price tag is double the highest amount ever charged for a political fund-raiser. And there are no "voluntary" limits in sight for this arms-race approach to what donors have to "pay to play" in Washington. A record-setting half-billion dollars in soft-money contributions is projected for the 2000 elections, twice the amount given in 1996.

Multiple collection arms. The number of entities chasing huge contributions has multiplied and the time frame during which these funds are solicited has increased, greatly intensifying the pressures to give. When the soft-money explosion first began in 1988, the two major-party presidential nominees used their respective national party committees to solicit $100,000 contributions during the summer and fall of the presidential campaign.

Now there are six different collection arms systematically soliciting these big contributions year in and year out from the same pool of donors. Each major party has three separate committees - representing presidential, House and Senate candidates - that aggressively chase big contributions.

If you're a corporation with major interests in Washington, chances are you can count on being "hit up" by all six of these committees - constantly - since neither party sees ideological constraints when it comes to the pursuit of big money.

That a donor may have given $100,000, or even $500,000, to a national party committee for a presidential race is irrelevant to that party's House and Senate campaign committees, each of which is focused on getting their own six-figure donations for their own races. What a soft money donor really needs in 2000 is a "Safe House."

No-holds-barred solicitors. Any restraints in the pursuit of big money are gone. And the demand for "tribute" has become quite explicit. This became abundantly clear with President Clinton's massive abuses in raising soft money for his 1996 re-election effort, and with the failure of the enforcement authorities to do anything about it.

In early 1997, Republican congressional and party leaders bluntly told Business Roundtable leaders to stop contributing to Democrats and start giving more money to Republicans, or they would pay the policy consequences in Congress. An e-mail from an Intel lobbyist, recently reported on by The Washington Post, shows just how brazen and legislative-specific these coercive practices have become.

The e-mail referred to a Senate bill of importance to the high-tech industry and said, "I have heard that regardless of our `limitations' we need to do something for [Senator] Abraham if we want to see something moved in the Senate. It must be visible and soon [from Senate leadership]."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who has described unlimited soft-money contributions as "the American way," played a key role in this money-raising effort to assist Sen. Abraham, according to The Post.

In this Congress, chief Senate fund-raisers, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, are not exactly known for their subtle approaches.

The king of the take-no-prisoners approach to extracting contributions, however, is House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Fla., a man who takes great pride in the tactics of intimidation. DeLay has revived President Nixon's notorious "enemies list" approach to American politics. He has made it clear that when it comes to campaign contributions there are direct legislative consequences for being his "enemy." And, as one of DeLay's advisers has been quoted as saying, "We don't waste Tom on small donors. We don't ask him to make $1,000 calls. He makes six-figure calls."

DeLay currently controls a conglomerate of soft-money organizations that are raising and spending unlimited contributions in secret and outside the federal campaign-finance laws. Many donors are fed up with the political extortion they now face.

Charles Kolb, president of the Committee of Economic Development, an organization of business and civic leaders from around the country who support a ban on soft money, says, "The business community, by and large, has been the provider of soft money. These people are saying: We're tired of being hit up and shaken down. Politics ought to be about something besides hitting up people for more and more money."

It's hard to know which practice is worse - the buying and selling of influence over government policies or the abuse of public office to shakedown and extort donors.

Fortunately we don't have to choose. We can get rid of both these affronts by banning soft money.

Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based nonprofit, public-policy organization that is concerned primarily with campaign finance reform.