Reform Will Return

NO one was fooled by the deception practiced earlier this week in the House of Representatives. Speaker Newt Gingrich may argue that he gave campaign finance reform its promised floor vote. But what he really gave it was the back of his hand.

Using parliamentary cunning, he allowed only four hand-picked, limited "reforms" to surface. These were put on a special legislative track that ruled out amendment and required two-thirds majorities for passage. The main reform legislation before the House, a bipartisan bill similar to the McCain-Feingold measure in the Senate, was effectively blocked from consideration.

This tactic was, unfortunately, far from surprising. The leadership of the majority party in both houses of Congress sees nothing to be gained from real reform - reform that would staunch the torrent of money splashing into party campaign coffers.

That "soft money" is the source of the worst abuses of the system, and was at the heart of last year's congressional investigation of the '96 Clinton-Gore fund-raising operation. The soft money loophole allows unlimited contributions to party organization - on the specious assumption such money will not go to help individual candidates. Closing it would restore meaning to laws forbidding political money from corporations and unions, and limiting donations from other sources.

Instead, we see only efforts to attach to reform legislation measures that touch only part of the soft money problem - i.e., bills that restrict unions' political spending by requiring that their members consent to the use of dues for that purpose. The Democrats, with their labor constituency, bridle at this. The presence of such a provision helped send one of the Republican reform measures down to a crashing defeat, even though it also included a ban on some, if not all, forms of soft money.

The reformers in both House and Senate sustained another procedural blow. But they'll persist, and their numbers are growing - sometimes as a matter of conscience, often because lawmakers realize this may yet become a viable campaign issue.

When it comes, real reform will arrive through bipartisan means, such as McCain-Feingold in the Senate, or its Shays-Meehan counterpart in the House. It will include a broad ban on soft money that stops the flow from all sources. And it will have the backing of incumbents who've come to realize the public's need for politics and government they can trust is greater than their own need for limitless campaign donations.

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