An Incumbent-Protection Act

AS Congress moves to vote on campaign-finance reform, lurking below the surface is a simple desire: Many legislators want to retain the power of incumbency to raise enough campaign money from big donors in order to be reelected.

If there are any doubts about this, just look at Massachusetts.

State legislators refuse to provide money for a law passed by voters in a 1998 ballot initiative that calls for public funding of campaigns. That money would put many incumbents on an equal footing in spending with their election challengers.

Lawmakers essentially don't want to vote themselves out of office for the sake of equality or to put an end to the influence of money in how they conduct the people's business.

This week, the state's highest court will consider ways to force funding of the Clean Elections Law. The court says it will even consider the drastic step of suspending this fall's election, since holding an election without the voter-mandated law has been judged unconstitutional.

Short of that, the court may try to force the money out of the executive branch, perhaps by ordering the sale of state land. But that raises tricky constitutional questions about the legislature's power over the public purse.

Massachusetts, where American democracy was born, sets a stark example of the survival skills of elected leaders everywhere. They will even create a constitutional crisis by defying voters who clearly choose to improve their system of government.

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