Preserve democracy with finance reforms

McCain-Feingold: Time to stop corrosive impact of not-so-soft money on American elections.

March 23, 2001

WHO REALLY thinks money should be enshrined as the equivalent of speech in a democratic society?

The U.S. Supreme Court reached that conclusion 25 years ago, and its unfortunate ruling set boundaries for the political debate peaking again in the U.S. Senate.

But surely the high court's view should be reexamined. Does anyone really think a $25 bull-roast ticket speaks as loudly as half-a-million dollars in soft money? Time has not dimmed the enthusiasm of the big political check writers.

But, cloaking themselves in the U.S. Constitution, opponents of reform defend a system that makes a mockery of one person, one vote. It's more like one dollar, one vote. We are, according to this view, in thrall to the will of those with money and must always be.

Surely there's another way. Otherwise, those with access to cash will also have untrammeled access to policymakers who will be hard-pressed to ignore their special pleading. Surely the dynamic of extortion and bribery can and must be altered.

The promising McCain-Feingold bill -- the one that would eliminate the corrosion of unlimited soft-money contributions -- already has been amended in a way that allows even more money into the process. The hilariously dubbed "millionaires" amendment would lift contribution limits in races where wealthy candidates pour huge sums of their own money into their own campaigns.

The financial fungus in politics will always be tough to kill.

Members of the Senate, where the bill is now being debated, are experts on campaign finance law because they are the constituency most immediately affected. Even if some piddling reform is enacted, smart lawyers representing big corporations and political interests will find ways to defeat reform.

This, after all, is the sixth year in which Sens. John McCain, Republican of Arizona and Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, have filed their bill.

Anyone who thought it might pass intact must believe gravity can be reversed.

Incumbents don't want to change a system that helped them win. They don't see a public clamor -- so they feel more than safe in fending off reform.

And don't look for leadership from President Bush. He issued a statement of principles on the eve of this debate that would protect the right of individuals to pump millions into so-called issue campaigns funded by soft money.

This president is no friend of change. Nor are most senators, including many who will pretend to be supporters.

If they insist on gutting McCain-Feingold, let's hope they have the decency not to blame the Constitution.

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