Next Rounds, Campaign Finance

The four horsemen of campaign finance reform are riding again.

With their 2002 reform passed by Congress, two senators and two congressmen effectively shut down unlimited donations (soft money) to individual campaigns. Now they're looking to close a loophole exposed by the 2004 campaign - the soft money from so-called 527 advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org and Progress for America formed by both Democrats and Republicans.

This spending was $254 million more in the 2004 election than in the 2002 election. The 527 activities, from get-out-the-vote campaigns to targeted TV ads, were supposedly unconnected to political parties. But they surely acted on behalf of the parties. So who's kidding whom? Left unchecked, 527s could grow sizably by the time the 2006 and 2008 election cycles roll around.

A bill to close this egregious loophole was introduced this month by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, and House members Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, and Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut. It would require the Federal Elections Commission to impose contribution limits on 527s, something the FEC refused to do last year.

But there's another equally important aspect to moving campaign finance reform forward: getting the current public financing system to reflect today's realities.

Primaries have outdated spending limits for matching public funds. The shear cost of running a presidential campaign has marginalized the already shaky public financing system (fewer Americans now check off the public financing box on their tax forms).

President Bush, John Kerry, and Howard Dean each declined public money during the 2004 election primaries because doing so would have severely restricted what they could spend.

This time, thankfully, the FEC recognizes the need for change. The chairman (a Democrat) and the vice-chair (a Republican) recently recommended upping the primary-season spending limit, doubling the amount of matched donations, and increasing the total amount of matching funds candidates can receive if they opt for public financing. Following their proposals should help revive candidate - and public - interest in untainted, public monies.

Both of these campaign reform ideas are sensible. And they ought to be approved quickly so that they can be in place for 2006 and beyond. A better public financing system and a strong curb on 527s should further level the campaign and election playing field.

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