Reform puzzle in Congress

Why would Democrats, so keen to reform campaign finance spending four years ago, now halt at the next step? And why would Republicans, seared by lobbying scandals too hot for even tough-guy Tom DeLay, turn cool on lobbying reform in the House, and back only a modest Senate bill?

These questions may sound puzzling, but they have a simple answer. Bluntly stated, it's the age-old temptation in Congress to put political self-interest ahead of voter-interest. As happens too often, lawmakers become more concerned with how they're going to get the money and backing to win and keep their seats, than with doing the jobs they were elected to do: represent voters without selling themselves to special interests.

Take the case of campaign finance reform. It wasn't long ago that Democrats backed a ban on unlimited campaign contributions, known as "soft money." That ban became law in 2002. But on Wednesday, most Democrats in the House refused to extend their support to closing a loophole in the law: so-called 527 groups.

The public will remember 527s as the nonprofits that bombarded the 2004 presidential race with anti-Kerry Swift Boat ads and anti-Bush National Guard ads. These groups have been spared from soft-money restrictions because they claim they're about the neutral job of voter education. But they showed their partisan colors in the last election, and donations to 527s should be regulated as campaign contributions are.

The worthiness of this idea can be found in the fact that the House bill, which would require 527s to register as political committees and abide by campaign funding restrictions, is co-sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan. Along with Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, Mr. Meehan championed campaign finance reform last time.

Alas, this time he was unable to convince his party to go along. Why? Political self-preservation. Democrats were much better than Republicans at funding 527s in 2004. Fortunately, the bill narrowly passed, and is headed to the Senate.

On the Hill though, self-interest crosses party lines. One would think that after a winter of lobbying scandals tarring Republicans with the "culture of corruption" label, that the GOP would be eager for a spring cleaning. This week's announcement by former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas that he will not seek reelection ought to serve as a reminder to speed along stalled - now weakened - lobbying reform in the House. But even with the ethically admonished congressman in headlines again, House Republicans can't seem to part with lobbyist gifts and privately funded travel.

Just how bipartisan political self-preservation can be is evident in the modest lobbying reform bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate last week. It takes real steps forward by increasing financial disclosure from lobbyists, but it doesn't do much to cut money ties. Lobbyists, remarkably, still serve as campaign fundraisers for congressional candidates.

Members of Congress treat these reforms like a Sudoku puzzle. It's all about calculations - political ones. Come November, voters will have a chance to rate lawmakers. That will be the score that really counts.

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