Soft Money Shuffle

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 11 2003 4:25 AM

Soft Money Shuffle

Everybody leads with the Supreme Court's decision to uphold all the major provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which bans so-called "soft money" from flowing directly to political parties. A coalition of unlikely allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, had argued that the law violated First Amendment rights, but the majority, in a surprisingly broad decision, ruled that the law was necessary to combat the undue influence that large donors have on government. The 5-4 decision went along ideological lines, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reprising her traditional role as the deciding vote. In the majority opinion, Justices John Paul Stevens and O'Connor argued that the law will help keep politicians from making decisions "according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder." In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the decision marked "a sad day for the freedom of speech," and grumbled that it would be a boon to incumbent politicians. (The ruling is posted in its entirety here.)

The Los Angeles Times parrots the view of one of the legislation's sharpest critics, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in an analysis that argues that the soft money outlawed by the legislation will still find its way into politics. Tax-exempt, ostensibly independent special interest groups, known as 527 committees, are likely to see an increase in donations from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals as a result of the decision. As the New York Times points out, however, the political parties—particularly the Democratic National Committee, which has long relied heavily on soft money—are likely to suffer and now have to put into motion efforts to fundamentally change their fundraising strategy. Republicans have traditionally had far more success than Democrats in raising "hard money"—donations of up to $2,000 for a candidate in an election and $25,000 for a party each year—and the Washington Post expects the decision to seal in place the Republican Party's fundraising advantage. President George W. Bush has raised $110 million in hard money so far this year, while Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean has amassed $25 million. 

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The LAT off-leads details of the Bush administration's efforts at damage control following the Pentagon's announcement that the U.S. will not allow countries that didn't support the war to seek $18.6 billion worth of Iraq reconstruction contracts. Though White House officials are claiming that their policy has not changed, Bush placed calls to the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia vowing to "keep lines of communication open," and officials say there will be flexibility in deciding which countries will be allowed to bid for the contracts. The NYT story stresses the awkwardness of the timing of the Pentagon's announcement, which came as Bush pressured the aforementioned leaders to forgive the $7 billion that Iraq owes to their countries. (TP mentioned this yesterday.) The European Union is now investigating whether the selective-bidding policy violates World Trade Organization rules, though U.S. officials insist that WTO guidelines do not cover the reconstruction authority in Iraq.

USA Today goes above the fold with a story, four months in the making, which heavily criticizes the U.S. military for going to war "with stockpiles of weapons known to endanger civilians and its own soldiers." The weapons in question are cluster bombs, and the piece details how unexploded "bomblets"—large quantities of small explosives that are packed into bombs, rockets, or artillery shells—often end up scattered on city streets, where they can be, and often are, inadvertently detonated. The U.S. military used more than 10,000 cluster bombs during the war, killing hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Unexploded bomblets have also killed or injured at least eight U.S. soldiers.

WP fronts word that for the second time in a week, a U.S. military operation was responsible for the deaths of Afghan children. This time, a falling wall crushed six children and two adults during a U.S. raid in Paktia province. The bodies of the civilians were found along with a large cache of weapons inside a compound allegedly used by an Islamic guerrilla. Four days ago, nine children were killed during an unsuccessful U.S. airstrike targeting a Taliban commander. Two U.S. soldiers were also killed yesterday in the Iraqi province of Mosul. 

WP fronts a detailed piece suggesting that the 40-year-old Basque rebellion in Spain may be coming to an end. A number of leaders and party members of ETA, the group fighting for a separate country for Spain's Basque people, have been arrested in recent months, and the organization is having trouble controlling its assets. LAT, meanwhile, goes inside with a piece detailing a new proposal to expand Basque autonomy, which some observers fear could eventually lead to more violence. More than 800 people have died as a result of ETA's quest for Basque independence.

A couple of health warnings grace the front pages of the papers. NYT reports on a letter sent by British drug regulators recommending that doctors not prescribe a number of new antidepressants, including Paxil and Zoloft, in the treatment of depressed children. WP, meanwhile, has news of a U.S. government warning instructing pregnant women and nursing mothers to limit their tuna consumption, due to the possibility of high mercury content. 

Wall Street Journal says fake Christmas trees—or "faux" trees, as the high-end sellers call them—are going upscale. The faux models now account for 70 percent of the trees found in U.S. homes, and some even come with a small bag of loose needles one can spread on the floor to enhance the effect. After testing out a tree handcrafted from goose feathers, the WSJ gives the Kmart Martha Stewart Everyday 7-and-a-half-foot Mount Rainier tree the thumbs down. Its "too-perfect triangular shape and aggressively green color" are a little disconcerting, says the author. In other words, Martha's creation looks far too real not to be a fake.

Brian Montopoli is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.

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