A showdown (again) over campaign finance

In a historic vote today, the US Senate is expected to pass the most serious overhaul of campaign-finance legislation in 25 years.

It's no one's ideal bill. It won't cure public cynicism about politics. It won't end all appearance of peddling cash for influence. It doesn't even cap what can be spent in a political campaign.

But it could help change the tone of American political life, by at least dampening the frenzied search for money that defines campaign seasons, supporters say.

Simply put, the proposed law closes the biggest loopholes from the last reform. It lops a few zeros off checks written to candidates or parties by wealthy contributors (banning so-called soft-money). And it forces sponsors of attack "issue" ads to disclose their real names.

After two weeks of intense debate, the whole package has come down to a carefully calibrated series of compromises - and risks. For both Democrats and Republicans, the biggest risk of all is ending the flow of soft money into party coffers.

In the past election cycle, the two parties were about even in soft-money contributions, nearly $500 million in all. According to law, this money is to be used for "party-building activities," such as get-out-the vote drives, mailing lists, or recruiting members.

But in recent years, soft money mainly has been used to support candidates. For example, the Bush campaign relied entirely on national GOP party ads in last year's California campaign.

For Republicans, the danger in eliminating such funds is whether they will be able to offset the clout of unions in elections. They worry that ending soft money would amount to "unilateral disarmament" in the face of thousands of union volunteers, whose contributions in such things as door-to-door canvassing for Democrats can't be measured in cash.

For Democrats, the great concern has been whether they could match Republicans in the race for monetary contributions to individual candidates. The new law raises the limits of so-called hard-money donations from $1,000 to $2,000 to any candidate.

Both parties face the prospect that a ban on soft money could leave them irrelevant, as interest groups (who can continue to raise and spend soft money) step up their own campaign spending.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the leading opponent of reform, warned colleagues that the bill would leave both parties defenseless - especially Democrats, who rely more than Republicans on soft money to support party operations.

But Democrats say they can refocus efforts on smaller contributors and still compete. "We're investing more time and energy on our small-donor base," says Democratic National Committee spokesman Rick Hess.

Should this bill pass the Senate, as expected, it will be taken up by the House, where similar bills have passed by wide margins. While the measure is expected to prevail there, too, the question is whether it will get muddied with amendments - and sent to a conference committee for resolution, from which it might never emerge.

"We will do whatever we can to avoid a conference committee," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a co-sponsor of previous campaign-finance reform bills.

All sides recognize that the final word will be in the courts. Senator McConnell is already preparing to contest such legislation on the grounds that it restricts constitutionally protected free speech, as are some of the interest groups likely to be affected by it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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