Debatable Reform Issues

We commend Republicans opposed to the current campaign finance bill for raising issues that belong in the debate - even as they marshal parliamentary intricacies to largely thwart debate.

Consider the effort to make all campaign donations voluntary. The GOP's whip in the Senate, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, proclaims this the sine qua non of genuine reform. That's what Trent Lott's "poison pill" amendment was ostensibly about: making sure union members could choose whether their dues support a specific party or candidate.

Compromise-minded senators toyed with the idea of applying the same standard to corporations and other politically active groups. Shouldn't firms ask shareholders and employees, and organizations ask members, before putting money into partisan coffers?

Such regulation could dampen the flow of campaign dollars from all quarters. But think of the complexities of enforcing such rules. An easier way, certainly, would be to close the backdoor, so-called party-building, soft-money channel that attracts most of the currently unregulated union or industry money. A stricter definition of what constitutes issue advocacy advertising - as distinct from ads designed to aid particular candidates - would help too.

Direct donations to influence specific federal elections, by the way, have been illegal for unions since 1947 - for corporations since 1907. Controlling the flow of money into politics is hardly a new idea. It twins with the threat of corruption.

And that other GOP debating point - that almost any constraint on the flow of money into politics imperils the First Amendment? This is fundamental. The curbs on corruption provided by contribution and spending limits have to be weighed against restraints on speech, in the form of TV ads, flyers, whatever. But that balancing has been under way for at least a century. It will continue as the republic periodically reins in political excess. And the First Amendment, we're confident, will survive.

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