Pulling Pols Off the Payroll

DOLLAR by one less dollar, the nation slowly is squeezing the amount of money being spent to influence the actions of Congress and presidents.

The latest effort, a campaign- finance-reform bill passed by Congress on Wednesday, after seven years of effort, may take nearly a half-billion dollars in "soft money" out of campaign coffers. That should make politicians more accountable to the people than to the powerful.

The bill isn't perfect, nor the last word. It passed because it was a compromise in response to a rapid rise in money given to the parties. It still faces challenges in the courts and in how it is enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

And some politicians no doubt will find ways around the new rules. Take, for example, a bill just introduced by House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas (R) of California. It would alter the disclosure rules of so-called "stealth" political action committees. Stealth PACs were organized at the state level, and could collect unlimited amounts of soft money. They were exempt from reporting their activities until a law was passed in 2000. Now, political organizations that receive more than $25,000 that don't report to the FEC must report to the IRS, which makes the records public. That rule should not be reversed.

The astronomically high cost of campaigns was not solved in this latest law. Television executives were able to block a provision that would have allowed a candidate to pay the lowest advertising rates. And the law won't do much to help candidates running against wealthy individuals.

But its success paves a path for more reform, and, if it works, it will show that government can be less responsive to monied special interests. Politicians will have to work harder to earn campaign dollars in lesser amounts from a more diverse set of donors.

And that's no small achievement.

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