Campaign finance reform went down for the count again on Tuesday, pinned by the procedural mastery of its opponents.
Senate reformers this year adopted the sensible tactic of lowering their aim to so-called "soft" money only. Those dollars - from companies, unions, or individuals - go in unlimited amounts to party groups, ostensibly for "party building." "Hard" money, by contrast, goes directly to a candidate, subject to strict caps.
In practice, the millions in soft money - a predicted $525 million during the 2000 campaign - largely end up boosting the campaigns of individual candidates. Thus longstanding bans on direct contributions from unions and corporations to federal candidates, designed to avert political corruption, are sidestepped.
Should this disturb Americans? Senatorial opponents of reform think not. Last week they challenged the sponsors of the soft-money ban to prove that an unlimited flow of dollars into politics tends toward corruption.
That's not an easy task. Often big contributors will wield access and influence in committees, through legislative staff - well out of public view.
Such activity has a place in a democracy. Lobbying to shape laws and policies is a useful part of the process. But an unrestricted flow of money into politics heightens the possibility of undue influence by a relatively few powerful interests.
Most seriously, it undermines the public's trust in government - creating the suspicion, if not the proven fact, of corruption.
That's reason enough for reformers in Congress to rise from the mat and keep trying.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society