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May 3, 2000, Wednesday
Editorial Desk

Revolt of the Business Class

The American political scene has always been enlivened by protests. But there are not many parallels to the recent rebellion among wealthy businesses tired of being hit up by Democrats and Republicans for campaign donations. As Don Van Natta Jr. reported in The Times this week, at least 31 corporations that have given big soft-money contributions in recent election cycles appear to be boycotting the process this year. Most are backing off quietly, but a few have stepped forward to say that swearing off soft money has not brought retaliation from the political establishment. Their disgust with the excesses of fund-raising could be another impetus to enactment of campaign finance reform this year.

Late last year Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, and other foes of the McCain-Feingold bill that would ban the unlimited donations to political parties known as soft money never tired of saying that this was an issue of little interest to American voters. Then the reform cause was energized by Senator John McCain's primary campaign, and by a Democratic race in which Vice President Al Gore declared that enactment of the soft-money ban would be one of his highest priorities as president.

Now business support for reform is growing. Senator Mitch McConnell has contended that businesses give money in order to ''participate'' in the political process, with no expectation of anything in return. But business leaders from the Committee for Economic Development and the Campaign for America, led by the investor Jerome Kohlberg, have characterized the campaign finance system as a shakedown operation. Many big businesses like General Motors, Time Warner and Allied Signal have concluded that the money they were spending on political contributions is better spent elsewhere.

But of course many businesses and special interests still give to get something in return for their donations. Philip Morris and the National Rifle Association, two of the biggest givers to the Republicans, have gotten politicians to oppose efforts to regulate guns and tobacco. The question is whether the public wants big questions like a patients' bill of rights, the creation of Social Security investment accounts and policies on software, telecommunications and Internet companies to be decided by who can give the biggest donations to whom.

Unfortunately, Gov. George W. Bush has so far joined Mr. Lott as an obstacle to reform. He says he favors a ban on corporation and union contributions to parties, but he would leave open a wide loophole by allowing unlimited donations to parties from individuals. Like other opponents of reform, he calls it a free speech issue. But Congress set limits on individual donations to candidates in 1974 after the Watergate scandals, and the legislation before Congress would simply extend those limits to donations to parties, which have been used to undermine the old reforms.

Mr. McCain is to meet with the presumptive party nominee in a few days to talk about issues. He needs to press Mr. Bush to support his campaign finance legislation in the Senate, where it commands majority support, and Mr. Bush ought to sign on to real reform. Americans want it. Most in Congress want it. Now even the donors want it. Mr. Bush and Mr. Lott should not stand in their way.