WASHINGTON (AP) - Senators weren't the only ones spending part of their summer focused on campaign fund raising. Other Americans took time out from vacations and barbecues to contact federal election officials through the Internet to urge that big political donations be banned.
"I believe that soft money should be completely stopped," Daniel Williams wrote in an e-mail to the Federal Election Commission.
Williams' electronic message was one of 134 comments received by the FEC about proposals to ban so-called soft money contributions - the huge donations to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy patrons that are a central theme of the current fund-raising investigations by Congress and the Justice Department.
President Clinton and five congressmen have asked the commission to adopt rules prohibiting soft money. During a 30-day comment period that ended recently, the FEC for the first time allowed people to e-mail their comments.
The FEC received only 36 mailed or faxed comments.
"Without that, I wouldn't have gotten to comment," said Williams, a dealer at a Las Vegas casino who heard about the comment period the day before it ended.
Some e-mails favoring a ban on soft money were copies of memos already prepared by public interest groups. Others were from concerned citizens who took the time to put it in their own words.
"I have a cynical view of the whole issue of `donations' to political parties," wrote Ken Bradley of Walloon Lake, Mich. "No matter what laws, regulations, rules, etc., are enacted, the politicians always find ways around them to get their (our?) money."
A ban on soft money "would redistribute some power back to where it belongs," wrote Lawrence Rosenfeld, a 53-year-old real estate developer in Highland Park, N.J. "The voters minimize the corruption the big money generates."
Special interests, including tobacco companies, lawyers' groups and unions, gave the Democratic and Republican parties $262 million in soft money last year.
Soft money is exempt from the $25,000-a-year legal contribution limit on donations from individuals. Contributions of $50,000 and $100,000 in a single month are not uncommon. One wealthy donor to the Republican Party recently gave $1 million in a single month.
The donations are supposed to be used for party-building activities such as get-out-the-vote drives and not to support specific candidates. But both political parties have gotten more creative in using soft money and last year funneled millions of dollars in donations to pay for ads in support of candidates.
Jonathan Felch, a 29-year-old software programmer from New York, said soft money creates "auction block democracy."
"More and more public policy originates from wealthy institutions, their lobbyists and think tanks," Felch said in his e-mail to the FEC last month. "Banning soft money would be a major step in the right direction."
Not all commenters told the FEC to end soft money.
"Since when is a donation to one's political party a crime?" wrote Mary Grabinski of Erie, Pa. "It is everyone's right to donate as he or she chooses."
John R. Williams of Arvada, Colo., told the FEC he opposed any limits on donations. "People who have more assets, produce more, or earn more ... should have more say in the political process than the average deadbeat," he wrote.
John Cavanaugh, who heads the Center for Citizenship Institute for Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina, said even if soft money were banned, special interests would find other ways to pour money into the political system.
"If a step is taken to limit financial support to the parties ... it is quite possible that the money will flow elsewhere - to single issue groups, political action committees or directly to candidates," Cavanaugh wrote.
The FEC will study the responses and current law to decide whether to consider changing the rules - a lengthy process that is unlikely to affect the 1998 election.