Orrin Hatch has a point. Critics who say it is wrong for him to accept the use of airplanes owned by pharmaceutical companies ought to be equally as upset about how Vice President Al Gore uses Air Force 2 for his campaign trips.

No, on second thought, they ought to be more upset with Gore. Because, while the law requires both Hatch and Gore to pay the equivalent of commercial first-class air-fare rates to make these trips, that doesn't come anywhere near to covering the actual cost. And, when both subsidies are evaluated objectively, the most egregious one is the one that takes advantage of U.S. taxpayers.But, really, both are equally understandable.

Hatch says his decision to sometimes use a plane owned by Schering-Plough Corp. (which wants Congress to extend a patent for its prescription allergy drug Claritin to prevent generic drug companies from soon copying it) does not influence any vote he would take on matters involving that company. His record would seem to bear that out. But the pharmaceutical company obviously doesn't provide this service out of the mere goodness of its corporate heart. At the very least, it wants to foster a relationship with key senators that could come in handy some day. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of relationships that tend to make average people feel alienated from government.

That is, however, the way the political world rotates. It takes money to run for president -- lots of it. The money has to come from supporters or from people or corporations that hope someday to be treated favorably in return. The people who want strict new limits on campaign fund-raising conveniently overlook that fact. The more donations are limited, the more candidates would have to spend their days and nights begging for donations.

The best the public can hope for is strict disclosure of all donations and expenditure. Voters need to know from whom their candidates accept money and other favors.

Neither Hatch nor Gore did anything wrong by accepting subsidized airplane rides. Hatch's trip was unfortunate only in that the Judiciary Committee he chairs was about to vote on the patent extension matter, which could bring Schering-Plough Corp. a lot of money. But, as Hatch noted, he and other candidates routinely accept the use of corporate jets from a variety of sources. And the trips are hardly free. Hatch has paid $15,137.50 so far for five trips on the corporate jet.

In this age of tight security, politicians can't be expected to fly commercially everywhere they go. This is especially true for the vice president, although he could charter a plane that was a little less expensive to operate than Air Force 2. But thanks to the Associated Press and other sources, voters now have a little more information about both candidates.

They alone are going to have to decide whether that information is important.