The Senate at Its Best, Please

AS the Senate enters a second week of debate on reforming the nation's campaign-finance laws, there's a need to keep both the constructive tone of the debate, and the reform effort itself, alive.

The Senate stands ready to pass something that can curb the influence of far too many dollars coming from far too few pockets in politics.

A fragile, bipartisan coalition led by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold managed to hold together during the first week. Now it needs to achieve its goal of eliminating "soft" money from the coffers of political parties - the kind of money that brings access to wealthy interests and influences votes.

If anything, this willingness of many senators to cross the aisle in support of a good idea may carry over to other pressing legislation that needs middle-ground consensus.

Americans able to watch last week's debate on TV witnessed a more responsible Senate in action, more engaged in productive dialogue with commendable comity on this serious and complicated issue.

So far, amendments already added to the McCain-Feingold bill serve to strengthen it. One of them makes sure that the identity of those who run so-called "attack" ads are identified. Another sets up an official website for information on campaign financing.

Moreover, senators passed a "millionaire" amendment that will help level the playing field when a candidate runs against an individual with deep pockets. It strengthens an existing law requiring broadcasters to charge their lowest possible rates. That helps put the breaks on runaway spending. In costly TV markets, advertising can eat up to 80 percent of a candidate's budget.

But some amendments that could reach the floor this week should be defeated.

One would make it easier for courts to throw out the entire law if just one piece is found to be unconstitutional.

Other amendments would raise the limit for "hard" money contributions (the amounts given directly to candidates). The caution here: Don't raise this limit so high that it effectively replaces "soft" money anyway. With only 1 percent of Americans giving the current limit of $1,000 to a campaign, the field already is narrow. Raising it to a suggested $75,000 limit would further make lawmakers beholden to the wealthy.

A third amendment - from Mr. McCain's Republican friend Chuck Hagel - contains the preposterous notion of institutionalizing soft money. Both men will have to work hard to hammer out a compromise on that.

The American people have said they want more transparency in government. They're likely to get that if the substance of the McCain-Feingold bill passes. And that may help more people feel like their views matter more in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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