The Senate Shows the Way

Inside the Senate chamber the past two weeks, Republicans and Democrats held a healthy political debate on the issue of reforming campaign finance laws - or, as it's sometimes called, "the family business."

After the most expensive election in history, those duly elected to conduct "the people's business" stand poised to pass a bill to curb excessive political contributions from organizations or individuals - contributions that create the appearance, if not the fact, of control over the country's politicians.

Even with Senate approval expected today, the centerpiece of the legislation - a "soft money" ban to eliminate the unlimited amounts of cash that can be given to political parties - still faces some rough patches.

Opponents of reform wait in the House. But that body has passed such measures before, and it can take useful cues from how the Senate effectively handled the issue. President Bush, wisely, has indicated he won't veto the bill, though he opposed a broad soft money ban.

That leaves the federal courts, where opponents of the legislation will press their case that limits on political contributions are an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The Supreme Court, however, has OK'd such limits before as a check against corruption, and it should give due weight to the Senate's well thought-through and honest debate.

That debate set a strong example of legislators willing to hold themselves accountable by facing up to one of the greatest temptations for candidates and elected officials.

Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin were able to hold together their bill and their bipartisan alliance of supporters despite a hail of amendments.

All told, a majority of lawmakers signaled their willingness to loosen their dependency on large amounts of cash from relatively few people. That's a bold step in the right direction for the democracy.

The Senate action also marks a brave step into unknown territory. Just who is advantaged or disadvantaged by McCain/Feingold will be debated for some time.

Don't expect an immediate sea change in the way campaigns are financed. The search for loopholes in this legislation has no doubt already begun.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of this legislation: Citizens might feel they can return to civic participation in this new political space created by the lessening of money influence in Washington.

Then the American people can make contributions, show their willingness to lose some cynicism, and more actively participate in national politics. The Senate is showing the way.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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