Clean Politics, in 1,600 Pages

The Supreme Court had a hand in deciding who won the presidency in 2000. Now the nine justices will likely have a hand again in the 2004 elections for both the White House and Congress.

This time around, however, the issue won't be a recount of hanging chads in Florida ballots. Instead, the court is being asked to rule - perhaps before or during the primaries start in January - on how much money the political parties can raise and how they can spend it.

The court will review a ruling issued Friday by a three-judge federal appeals court that was the first constitutional test of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

In a sign of how contentious it is to ban "soft money" from politics, the lower-court ruling was 1,600-plus pages and took months longer to write than expected. And the three judges were mostly divided on key points in the law, leaving a muddled ruling that appears to approve the raising of unlimited donations from labor unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals but allows a ban on using them to pay for "issue ads" that advocate a candidate's election or defeat.

Until the high court weighs in, the legal confusion over the appellate court ruling may allow politicians to resume massive fund-raising, the kind that corrupts much of the decisionmaking in Washington. But at the same time, special-interest groups seem to be barred under the ruling from certain types of political advertising.

The Supreme Court obviously needs to rule sooner than later. It's expected to be tougher on the role of money politics than a 1976 ruling, in which it found the First Amendment permits limits on campaign contributions but not on campaign spending. Despite all the new rules and laws, millions of dollars of special-interest money still flow into campaigns.

The high court has the Herculean task of cleaning out the politicians' money stables, and doing so quickly.

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