Campaign finance fire not burned out yet

In a presidential year when we were at peace and the economy was good, the issue that stirred up the most interest was campaign-finance reform. The voters, particularly during the primaries and with John McCain pushing the issue, were upset, even angry, over the millions of dollars being poured by contributors into the campaign.

No one had to tell the American people about the influence that goes with such big contributions. They saw the corruptive nature of it all and, clearly, wanted an end to it. It was, as we used to say, a "burning" issue.

But after the election the fire of public interest in the issue ebbed or, at least, it seemed that way. True, with the presidency decided, the public usually turns away the politics of the campaign and the issues that have been debated.

With emotions spent, a weary electorate goes back to everyday matters such as making a living or determining how best to educate their children - and other more localized problems.

Indeed, the polls have shown public interest in campaign-finance reform has become almost inconsequential - well below such issues as education, Social Security, healthcare, taxes, and more.

But at a recent Monitor breakfast with Congressmen Chris Shays (R) and Marty Meehan (D), cosponsors of a campaign-finance reform bill in the House, I picked up a new slant on these poll findings. When I mentioned the lack of public interest in campaign-finance reform, these congressmen admitted that Americans seem from the polls to have become bored with the issue.

But they then asserted that if the polls would put the question in another way, asking Americans how they felt about the need for getting rid of corruption in the financing of candidates, they would have found there was still a burning public interest in the subject.

Mr. Shays said that if the title of his legislation had included "corruption" - perhaps the "anti-corruptive campaign finance reform" bill - it would have stirred up and kept more visible public support behind it.

This being said, both Shays and Mr. Meehan still expressed optimism about their bill being debated and passed by the House in early July. They said they were well aware of efforts within the House to defeat their bill, or pass an alternative that would be so different from the McCain-Feingold bill passed in the Senate that it would have to go to the conference committee - from which weakened compromise legislation was likely to emerge. But they expressed confidence that their bill - similar to McCain-Feingold - would still prevail.

They acknowledged that their bill is, indeed, only the "beginning" of the reform that is needed - but that it is an "important beginning."

It would ban the "soft money" system, through which the political parties can raise and spend, on behalf of candidates, money the candidates are forbidden to raise and spend themselves. And it would ease the limits on the "hard" money that can be given to candidates directly.

At one point in the breakfast I asked Shays if his pushing of the legislation hadn't made him unpopular with those Republican leaders in the House who were known to be resistant to campaign-finance reform. He said, "No," that he was getting full cooperation from them.

Here, again, he mentioned how he had a promise from Speaker Dennis Hastert for a vote on the Shays-Meehan bill "right after the July 4th recess." This didn't quite answer my question. I imagine that with the House GOP leadership, he would not be exactly their favorite congressman.

But Shays and Meehan (if they do prevail) are going to be heroes with the public - once the public figures out what this "soft and hard money stuff," as one reporter at the breakfast called it, is all about.

There will be four heroes: McCain and Feingold in the Senate, and Shays and Meehan in the House. McCain, should he run for president again, may be the one who benefits most from it politically.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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