Reform Edges Closer

Political embarrassment may yet bring about campaign finance reform.

The drip, drip, drip of awkward moments for leaders of both parties - stretching from the 1996 election to this election season - has gradually built support for bipartisan reform legislation. Now the reformers have been promised a full debate and vote in the House in late May.

Exactly what limits the House might try to place on campaigns is not yet clear. Nor is it clear whether success in the House would pressure the Senate to act.

A reasonable speculation would have the House voting to curb "soft money" donations from business, labor, and individuals. In addition, issue "attack ads" might be barred during the final weeks of a campaign, particularly since such ads are seen by many candidates as loose cannons that may have unpredictable results.

The procedural dam obstructing a floor vote on finance reform broke at the end of last week as more GOP members deserted a leadership increasingly on the defensive. House Speaker Gingrich had strayed into President Clinton's campaign crosshairs by criticizing GOP Sen. John McCain's bill heavily penalizing tobacco firms. Clinton accused Gingrich of bowing to the influence of tobacco money. Gingrich retreated.

This week it is the Democrats' turn to duck, as the trial of Maria Hsia opens in Washington. Ms. Hsia is charged with laundering money from a California Buddhist temple for the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection and other Democratic campaigns.

The campaign money spotlight isn't necessarily fair. Tobacco firms contributed more to the GOP than to Democrats, but they poured millions in both directions. Mr. Clinton, videotaped wooing soft-money providers at White House events, isn't an ideal caster of the first stone. Neither is Vice President Gore, stained by earlier tobacco ties, the Buddhist event, and White House dialing for dollars. And then there's Mr. Gingrich's book deal, where Rupert Murdoch, owner of his original publisher, may have wanted favors.

Public reaction to such clay feet in both parties helped Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts to corral enough support to force next month's floor vote.

Many uncertainties remain. The bill debated in May may be amended. The soft-money ban and attack-ad limits found in the identical Shays-Meehan (House) and McCain-Feingold (Senate) bills may be altered. The Senate measure may not reach a vote this year. Even if both houses vote reform, the resulting law may face a constitutional test. The Supreme Court could rule it infringes political free speech.

We continue to hope that the egregious linkage of corporate and union giving and favorable legislation can be curbed. But even if that comes about, there's little reason for complacency. Interest groups with money have found their way past previous reforms. They are not likely to give up in the face of new limits. Watchdogs will always be needed.

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