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The Wit but Not the Will

Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page C06

THE DEFEAT of campaign finance reform in the Senate -- a moderate bill that had majority support but not the three-fifths necessary to overcome a filibuster by the Republican leadership itself -- was a failure of the legislative process. The failure was made all the more poignant by the glimpse during debate of what the process might in fact have been able to produce had the bill not been so coarsely dealt with. We have in mind the amendment by Sens. Olympia Snowe and James Jeffords, the deft effect of which was both to balance the underlying bill and help to solve a First Amendment problem it presented. The amendment was a reminder of how good a bill might be in reach if only there were the political will, and willing leadership, to write it.

The underlying legislation, by Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold, already had been reduced to fairly bare bones. Needed reform of congressional elections had been put aside because there weren't the votes for it. What remained was a ban on the soft money that was the source of most of the excesses in the last presidential election; money that the candidates were barred by law -- and by their acceptance of public funds -- from raising and spending on their own was raised and spent instead in the names of the national political parties.

The sham enabled both sides to make a joke of existing law. But if you ban the use of the parties as shells for the raising of this money, what, if anything, do you do about the likely next step, the funneling of the same amounts through theoretically independent advocacy groups? McCain-Feingold proposed limits on the activities of such independent groups as well. The limits were too clumsy, and likely violations of the free speech clause. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership also proposed, as a kind of taunt meant to kill the bill, an alternative to the soft money ban crimping the ability of organized labor to spend the large amounts it tends to, mainly in behalf of Democrats.

The amendment by Sens. Snowe and Jeffords was meant to solve both these problems -- make the leadership proposal more fair and McCain-Feingold less onerous in the same stroke. They proposed new limits on the use of both labor and corporate money, including by independent groups, in the closing months of campaigns. The independent groups could continue to do as they pleased with other funds. Labor and corporate treasuries have traditionally not been supposed to be used in federal campaigns anyway.

Some groups say Snowe-Jeffords would still violate the free speech clause. Who knows? Our own sense is that it does a good job of balancing the government's, and public's, competing interests in keeping elections open and clean. The amendment is not the first time in recent years that good legislators, left to their own devices instead of being held on party puppet strings, have come up with fresh and constructive ideas. The dispute several Congresses ago was over spending limits for congressional campaigns. Democrats were generally for, Republicans against. Bob Dole and George Mitchell toyed briefly with the notion of imposing limits but exempting small contributions from the candidate's home district or state.

That's the sort of compromise that the legislative process at its best produces. The defeat in the Senate the other day was not the process at its best but a charade in which the Republicans sought to kill the bill but escape the blame. They succeeded at the first of those. There may be continuing maneuvering, but there won't be a bill in this Congress. The fund-raising for the next presidential election, to say nothing of the next couple of congressional elections, will be as wide open and abusive as in the past -- even more so, we would guess. Office is being bought, even if officeholders are not. You wonder how large the scandal has to get before they try seriously to fix it.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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