New York Times Editorial
October 7, 2000

Mr. Lazio's Refund

Representative Rick Lazio's decision to refund to the Republican National Committee the roughly $1.4 million he accepted from the party to help pay for television commercials touting his candidacy was a necessary act of damage control. Although accepting the money was legal, it violated the terms of the campaign financing agreement under which he and his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, agreed not to use outside funding in their campaigns.

Mr. Lazio's decision to violate the spirit of that agreement only a few days before their second television debate was a boneheaded political play. He said he was reversing himself to protect the agreement's core provisions banning unregulated soft money and third-party spending. But his turnaround late yesterday also amounted to belated realization that by grasping for a loophole in the agreement not to tap party money available for coordinated expenditures, he was wasting any political gains he had achieved by championing the need for a voluntary ban on using unregulated soft money for campaign ads. For a candidate who spent part of the first debate waving a draft copy of a spending agreement and daring Mrs. Clinton to sign, the decision to use party money for an ad campaign was an astonishing misjudgment.

Mr. Lazio contended that such spending was exempt from the agreement. But that reading could not be sustained in light of statements by his own campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. Asked explicitly during negotiations whether the ban included spending of both hard and soft money by political parties, he declared that "nobody can spend outside dollars on this race, period. The campaigns should raise and expend all dollars that are spent in this race." That conformed to the Clinton campaign's understanding that no party spending on commercials was allowed.

For the moment at least, the fragile treaty to curb egregious fund-raising abuses in the New York race remains intact. It is too soon to assess what permanent damage, if any, Mr. Lazio has inflicted upon himself in this episode. But it should be noted in Mrs. Clinton's favor that she has shown no sign of breaking or fudging the agreement, even though accepting it was more costly for her than for Mr. Lazio. The clear winners here are the voters and the political system as a whole. Although it is no substitute for the sort of campaign finance reform legislation that both Mr. Lazio and Mrs. Clinton have pledged to support if elected to the Senate, their agreement is nonetheless an important symbol that candidates are beginning to respond to the public's hunger for clean campaigns.

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