A door to reform

December 14, 2003

CYNICISM IS bred easily by the tawdry displays of money's impact on politics that have been all too common in recent years:

The Clinton practice of rewarding generous donors with sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. The epidemic of cooked corporate books that flourished because President Bush and Congress failed to regulate big givers in the accounting industry. And that tub-o'-lard energy bill so laden with payoffs to the deep-pocketed energy industry it succumbed to its own weight.

Revulsion at the current campaign finance system appears to have reached critical mass for the first time in a generation, though, with a majority of the Supreme Court declaring the appearance of corruption is sufficient to justify reforms that opponents say impinge on free speech.

The victory for Arizona Sen. John McCain and his bipartisan band of renegades was huge, but it just opened a door. Now that the court has upheld congressional authority to write tighter election rules, lawmakers have a duty to use that power effectively .

Schemes aplenty are already in place to evade the ban on unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties and unregulated spending on last-minute "issue" ads that are the central features of the McCain-Feingold bill on which the court ruled.

Congress should move quickly to squelch such maneuvers, in part by creating a more independent Federal Election Commission that will enforce the law rather than dismantle it, as the current commission is trying to do.

Another pressing task is updating the nearly 30-year-old program for public financing of presidential elections, which has been rejected as inadequate by three major contenders in the 2004 race.

A far more ambitious but highly worthy goal would be adjusting the wild imbalance in congressional campaign financing, which gives such an advantage to incumbents that most are immune from challenges.

Lawmakers are generally not inclined to tamper with the status quo in what they view as a matter of personal survival. Enactment of the McCain-Feingold bill required years of effort and compromise. Critical to the cause was the sheer tenacity of Sen. McCain, who made campaign finance reform a central plank of his 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination against Mr. Bush -- and came back from his defeat even more determined to get the job done.

He might not have prevailed, though, if it weren't for national outrage at the Enron accounting scandal that gave the measure a final push past resistant GOP leaders and convinced President Bush to sign it.

Scandal should not be a prerequisite for the public interest to trump special interest. The ideal in a democracy is for political candidates to be financed by a large number of small contributions that reflect broad support with no narrow concern in control.

So, voters have a job to do, too. Support candidates whose message appeals, maybe even with a few bucks, but beware those who seem for sale to the highest bidder. There's always likely to be someone with more money.

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