THE SENATE voted 96 to 0 on Wednesday to denounce Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) for violating its rules in such a way as to cast it into disrepute. The censure should not be confused with genuine housecleaning. If the Senate is really concerned about its reputation, it will do more than chastise an errant member who got caught. It will pass campaign finance reform.
The principal charge against Mr. Durenberger was that he took too much money from interest groups in the form of honoraria. But they all are driven to do so; campaign contributions dwarf speaking fees. The legislation belatedly being brought to the floor is not repressive, not a prudish attempt to sanitize congressional politics, but an effort to free Congress a little by moderating money's role. If it is rejected or -- worse and more likely -- passed only with the understanding that it will then be left to die, the vote against Sen. Durenberger will be shown up as a mockery.
The underlying problem in campaign finance is simple: Office costs too much. A Senate seat now costs $4 million; that is what the average winner spent in the last election. To accumulate that much, a senator must raise more than $2,000 a day six days a week every week of his six-year term. Senators from large states or in competitive races must raise up to three times more.
The Democrats would meet the problem with spending limits. The Republicans, better fund-raisers, have opposed such limits in the past on grounds they need to outspend their opponents to take back control of the Senate. Lately, however, Republicans have indicated they might accept partial limits -- not on total spending but on the spending of certain kinds of funds (from out-of-state sources, for example, or PACs). Surely it's not beyond the Senate's ability to find the constructive common ground required for a deal.
The Supreme Court has said that to satisfy the First Amendment, spending limits must be voluntary, meaning as a practical matter that there must be inducements to comply in the form of partial public financing of campaigns. The Republicans don't like public financing, but this, too, can be worked out; possible compromises are to give the public aid in kind (chits for TV time or reduced postal rates) or to hold it in reserve for candidates whose opponents refuse to accept the limits. The Republicans also want to alter the mix of funds to allow more small contributions or use of party funds at the expense of PAC money. Surely that's not all bad.
The Democratic bill, over the opposition of some of the party's own officials, would also put badly needed limits on the expenditure of so-called soft money contributed through state and local committees outside the current sphere of federal regulation.
Campaign finance is not the only ethics issue the Senate continues to face. Six more senators remain before the ethics committee, five for intervening in a big-bucks savings-and-loan case after the owner made them large political contributions. The Senate will also be called upon again this year to do what the House did last year and it would not -- vote itself a pay raise and give up the back-door pay from the interests in the form of honoraria that helped get Sen. Durenberger in trouble. But the real test of the virtuous pose the Senate struck this week will be in campaign finance. The goal is not to end the money chase but to slow it down. The Senate will be a better place.