Money With a Name on It

It's only one small part of a larger repair job, but last week's final passage in the Senate of a bill to force secretive political committees to disclose donors and spending is nonetheless a credible start.

The Senate action followed a similar victory for reform in the House. All that remains is the assured signature of President Clinton. Well, almost all.

Some backers of the bill are concerned that its opponents - most notably a hard core of Senate Republicans who resist any tightening of the loophole-ridden campaign-finance system - will do all they can to keep the measure from promptly reaching the president's desk.

That's a risky strategy, if it materializes. The reason the disclosure requirement passed is that most lawmakers know that it's a reasonable step that makes perfectly good sense to most Americans.

The so-called "527" groups, named after a section of the federal tax code, are tax-exempt advocacy organizations that escape the disclosure demands of the election laws that are applied to political-action committees (PACs). These groups have sprouted of late, sponsoring "issue" ads that clearly take sides in political races, and positioning themselves to be important factors in this fall's congressional and presidential contests.

Some of the groups have been set up by powerful members of Congress. Others, like the group that attacked John McCain's environmental record during the primaries, have been formed by wealthy, private citizens.

The question is whether the public has a right to know where the groups' money is coming from. Since there is no more essential activity in a democracy than fair and open elections, the answer, obviously, is yes. And despite constitutional arguments lobbed by some critics of reform, disclosure has no bearing on individuals' rights to participate in the political process. Participation and openness about that participation should be inseparable.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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