Hard Time for Soft Money

Few issues cut across the grain of Washington as much as campaign finance reform. Curbs on the corrupting influence of money - restoring at last the power of individual voters - would transform how the nation's business is conducted.

This Thursday will be a defining moment in a decades-long drive to restrict campaign contributions. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Shays-Meehan bill, a version of which the Senate has already approved. In the past, such a bill easily passed the House, because congressmen knew the Senate would block it.

The bill's strong point is a ban on "soft money," which amounted to some $500 million in the last election campaign. It would end soft money contributions to the national political parties and curb money for "issue ads" that mention federal candidates by name.

But now, many Republicans and Democrats in the House are trying to back off from their past support for such reform. They hope this or that amendment to the bill, or an alternative bill backed by the GOP leadership, will doom reform and allow them to keep "soft money" flowing into party campaign coffers in order to pay for expensive television advertising.

While a few of the amendments might seem worthwhile, their effect would be to scuttle the bill by forcing it into a House-Senate conference for reconciliation, where it could easily perish.

Are voters watching?

That's the question many congressmen are asking quietly, hoping no one holds them accountable come election day 2002.

One person, at least, is watching.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, cosponsor of the Senate bill, used his popularity last fall to campaign for dozens of congressmen who won their races. He's the national champion of this badly needed effort to overhaul American democracy.

And he won't let those congressmen off the hook in the next election if they vote against this bill now.

The Supreme Court, too, has been watching, in its own way. It ruled in a case last month that the possibility does exist for campaign contributions to influence how legislators vote, thus justifying some new curbs on campaign finances. That constitutional green light gave boosted the bill's supporters and undercut arguments that its restrictions would violate freedom of speech.

Special-interest lobbyists are out in force to block this bill. Voices on the other side are smaller, but they hope that many in Congress might put the country ahead of their own ability to raise money and vote for this bill.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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