WASHINGTON - The new year may not be happy for the Clinton administration.
The president's legal defense fund recently returned more than $600,000 in donations from an Arkansas businessman who may have acted as a surrogates for the Chinese government at White House meetings.
Congress will also likely spend months investigating campaign contributions funneled through the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign from China, Indonesia and South Korea.
Much like health care in 1993 and immigration in 1995, campaign-finance reform could be a stealth political issue. Barely noticed during the campaign, it has the potential to dominate the policy agenda in 1997.
What should be done is simple: Enforce the laws on the books. But the reformers, led by Common Cause and various groups founded by Ralph Nader, aren't content to apply old laws.
They want to add new restrictions. The current passion among reformers is to ban or strictly limit money from political action committees.
They would also restrict or eliminate "soft money," the unlimited supply of dollars that individuals, businesses and interest groups can give to political parties. And they would prohibit campaign contributions from non-citizens, even those who will eventually become Americans and already live under U.S. laws.
It's hard to believe that candidates and campaign operatives who so shamelessly break existing laws will miraculously rehabilitate themselves when the laws become tougher to obey.
The good-government types are right when they say the problem is power. But the power they worry about is the wrong kind.
The clout wielded by well-connected individuals, businesses and advocacy groups is less troublesome than the coercive might of government.
A growing number of election watchers, including conservatives Pete du Pont, Tony Snow and Mona Charen suggest a different type of reform: Repeal limits on private campaign spending or contributions but require full disclosure of funding sources.
Requiring disclosure compromises the privacy of donors, but when people are trying to influence policy, it's not a bad idea to know who wants to buy what.
But the demand to document every jot and tittle is troubling. Requiring full disclosure would only enhance the tendency of election agencies to occasionally act like jack-booted thugs. A more sensible approach would set reasonable reporting thresholds.
Individuals or groups that contribute, say, $ 1,000 or less to a cause need not disclose anything. In addition, set a sensible level for the amount of donated labor and equipment that can go unreported.
Above those levels, make political contributors open their books. The law should neither stifle genuine grass-roots activism nor encourage fat cats to conceal their motives.