Knocking on Bush's Door

In his first days as president, George W. Bush can use some of his untapped political capital to support a bill reforming the way big money flows into political campaigns.

Two senators, John McCain (R) and Russell Feingold (D), plan to reintroduce a campaign-finance reform bill on Jan. 22. A similar bill in the House (Shays-Meehan) will likely be reintroduced soon after.

Americans deserve a clean, clear reform bill. Especially after a campaign that saw more than twice as much soft money ($457 million) raised this time than in the last presidential election, making it the most expensive election in history.

Politics and money are inseparable partners, but it's a partnership that must be more accountable and limited if Americans are to have full faith in their democracy.

Mr. Bush, after his near-Pyrrhic victory, needs to show democracy can work without the undue influence of big campaign donors - on both major parties. He also owes it to the supporters of his two main opponents in last year's campaigns - Mr. McCain and Al Gore - who came very close to defeating him and who vowed to bring up campaign-finance reform as a first order of business this year.

These two bills were blocked by legislators who benefit from large campaign contributions, and have never reached the president's desk.

Both aim to plug a big legal loophole: so-called "soft money" contributions that are unlimited and unrestricted funds that may be given to political parties. The bills would also curb "issue ads" that are really a disguise for endorsing (or dissing) candidates.

The Supreme Court has made it clear there's a First Amendment issue here, but it also left room for the government to act to restrict campaign contributions as a curb against potential corruption.

Republicans especially need to see that reducing money to political campaigns does not prevent free speech. In fact, in the real world of Washington, it would enhance the voices of all voters over the well-monied interests.

McCain-Feingold has failed to pass four times in four years, but McCain recently gained the support of conservative Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi. And five Republicans who were against the bill lost in the last election to five Democrats who support it.

Even though the timing looks right, close ties between money and politics will not soon or easily be loosened.

Attaching a string of amendments to these bills, especially on the thorny issue of broader electoral reform which some Republican leaders are talking about, is an unnecessary diversionary tactic. Such moves are likely to act as a smokescreen, causing further distrust among voters tired of seeing their views diluted by special interests.

McCain says he knows compromises will have to be made, but he and Bush owe it to the nation to wield their political influence wisely.

If Bush falters, McCain should seriously consider using the issue to run against him in 2004.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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