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Good Vote on Campaign Reform

Friday, August 7, 1998; Page A24

The vote in the House yesterday for campaign finance reform was impressive, the more so because it occurred over the opposition of the Republican leadership. Opponents were busy dismissing the outcome even before the vote was cast, as an exercise less of legislation than of election-year showmanship carrying no risk of enactment.

But that's not so. In the House as in the Senate, clear majorities now have shown themselves unwilling to defend the system of campaign finance by which they were elected. That's not an idle message. In the House yesterday, members who were merely seeking cover could have voted for a rival bill, a plausible alternative put together by a bipartisan group of freshmen. That bill failed, 147 to 222. The vote in favor of the stronger bill -- a decisive 252 to 179 -- was real.

The legislation mainly bans soft money -- the fictional distinction whereby the national political parties are used to raise and spend money their candidates are forbidden by law to raise and spend themselves. That was the principal source of the fund-raising abuses in the last campaign. The measure, whose tenacious sponsors, Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan, performed an important service over many months, now goes to the Senate. The Republican leaders there earlier staged a filibuster to block a similar bill. They have served notice they will resist again in the few legislative weeks that remain before Congress's scheduled adjournment. They won't bring the bill up on their own; supporters will have to attach it to other legislation -- threaten basically to shut the Senate down unless the presumed majority in favor of the bill is allowed to work its will.

By Senate standards that's not a seemly thing to do, and the bill's past Republican supporters will have to defy their own party leadership. But this do-nothing Senate particularly has nothing more important to do. The question is: What matters most to the proponents, comity or accomplishment? We'll find out in September.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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