Campaign Reform's Big Moment

The most important votes in Congress this year will take place next week in the House. They will decide, in effect, whether Washington will continue to let campaign money influence its actions.

All manner of means are promised by opponents of campaign-finance reform to dilute, divert, or deep-six a measure sponsored by Congressmen Chris Shays (R) and Marty Meehan (D).

Last year, tricky procedural moves sidelined a vote on the Shays-Meehan. But the two men worked hard to obtain the required 218 signatures to force House Speaker Dennis Hastert to schedule a debate and vote. The Speaker promises a fight, and likens it to "Armageddon."

The bill, a version of which already passed the Senate, represents years of work to come up with a minimal compromise on this issue. Its keystone - the elimination of unlimited "soft" money contributions from wealthy individuals, unions, and corporations to political parties - should be left in place.

Almost every lobbyist that expects favors for cash is pushing the House to scotch this bill. That won't be easy. The Enron scandal has made their argument fall even flatter.

Few elected officials want to be painted with a "no" vote on getting rid of one of the most egregious aspects of political campaigns, the soft money now overflowing Democratic and GOP party coffers. Right? Think again.

Plenty of "poison pill" amendments, or other political shenanigans, are designed to blow apart a carefully crafted, and precarious, coalition. Some members see appeasing their pro-reform constituents by offering amendments to ostensibly "strengthen" the bill, knowing all the while that their efforts would relegate Shays/Meehan to a House-Senate conference committee. In fact, perhaps the most dangerous tactic in play next week likely will be various attempts to send the bill to a conference committee where it would be gutted or killed.

House Republican Robert Ney of Ohio and Democrat Albert Wynn of Maryland plan legislation that would put a cap on hard- and soft-money contributions at far too high a number: $1.26 million. Shays/Meehan would cap hard contributions at $57,500. The Ney/Wynn plan amounts to no more than a bogus, status-quo-maintaining alternative. Getting rid of soft money is the linchpin of Shays/Meehan.

Another strategy, which nearly killed the companion McCain/Feingold bill in the Senate, would allow the whole bill to be null and void if only one part of it were later deemed unconstitutional by a court.

For the first time in 25 years, there's a chance for real campaign-finance reform. Let's not let sneaky maneuvers prevent a restoration of democracy for American voters.

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