These two reformers are not Mr. Smiths going to Washington, as in the classic movie. Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona are traveling from Washington to get us all on their campaign reform bandwagon. They started in democracy's landmark cities of Boston and Philadelphia this week. Their legislation will be passed by the symbolic date of July 4 if 1,776,000 citizens have anything to say about it. That's the minimum number of signatures that Common Cause and other groups are seeking in Project Independence, what they call the largest grass-roots mobilization ever mounted in behalf of campaign finance reform.
Consider this our John Hancock on their petition: "We, the undersigned, in order to reclaim our democracy, demand that Congress declare independence from the influence of special interest money by passing effective bipartisan campaign finance reform by the Fourth of July."
How "effective" any legislation will be is a question. After a plethora of previous laws, political fund-raising has reached the current scandalous proportions.
McCain-Feingold would address a central problem in recent campaign by eliminating "soft" money - unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, labor unions, and fat cats.
It would impose the same limits on contributions to national parties and campaign committees that already apply to individual candidates.
And the McCain-Feingold legislation would comply with the Supreme Court ruling against mandatory limits on campaign spending by encouraging candidates to voluntarily limit expenditures through such incentives as a certain amount of television time at discounted rates.
A key point to be argued in Congress is raised by Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware and GOP candidate for president:
"Instead of super-regulating an already over-regulated activity, require every campaign contribution, hard or soft, direct or indirect, to be reported daily to the Federal Elections Commission by electronic means."
A key point in public perception was indicated by Senator Feingold when he stopped at our editorial offices. He told of the colleague who said he couldn't sponsor the reform law because constituents would think he was a hypocrite. Not, presumably, because of wrongdoing by him but because all the disclosures and would-be coverups of fund-raising excesses have left too many citizens thinking that legal steps are window dressing for entrenched practices.
President Clinton hardly dispelled such impressions when he said he would endorse McCain-Feingold and then threw another lavish fund-raising affair.
Nor does Mr. McCain's home-state paper, the Arizona Republic, when it reports he plans to enlist Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, who heads a Senate committee investigating 1996 campaign finance, in a $500,000 fund-raiser with such perks as dinner at McCain's home for an extra $8,000.
The public is understandably left in doubt when politicians try to frame new rules while seeming to take every advantage of the old. What if we woke up on the Fourth of July and just found everybody doing the right thing, laws or not?