A Hard Line Against Soft Money

Kudos to Time Warner Inc. for a gutsy move: ending its soft-money contributions to both political parties, just as the Presidential campaign heats up. There is no more corrosive influence on American democracy than what amounts to a sale of access in Washington, which is what the soft-money chase comes down to. Republicans and Democrats alike shake down corporations for huge sums in exchange for an easier foot in the door to important people in Congress. With cable and other media businesses, Time Warner is deeply enmeshed in federal legislation and regulation. It took courage to "just say no" to implied political threats, the kind of courage other companies in the U.S. should find in themselves.

Soft money bypasses the laws that prohibit unions and corporations from donating funds that influence elections. It goes, theoretically, to overall party building. Yet nearly all of the money pays for ads that support one candidate or ridicule another. Each party raised $200 million in the past two elections in soft money, and this season will see a record total.

Oddly enough, most members of Congress agree that soft money is a bad idea. Legislation sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Representative Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) garnered 55 votes in the Senate and 278 in the House this year. But it would take 60 votes to break the Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Soft money begets crony capitalism, a practice that has no place in a high-tech, market economy. Warren E. Buffett, Jerome Kohlberg, and a growing number of other business leaders oppose the political pressure to pay for Washington access. Time Warner's CEO Gerald M. Levin has joined them. It is time for every chief executive to take a stand.

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