THE CYNICAL view of the campaign finance legislation that the Senate finally did its duty and passed on Wednesday is that it will now be carefully interred while a business-as-usual Congress first goes on vacation, then scrambles to adjourn. But that is not necessarily so. This is good legislation, and seeing it win (with five Republicans breaking ranks to join all but one Democrat in support) is surely better than having it lose. Now the House badly needs for the sake of its own integrity to pass the similar bill it is scheduled to consider today. The matter would then be in conference and the possibility of genuine reform close enough at hand that there would be tremendous pressure to act. Most of the smart money says that won't happen, but it's not impossible.
The Senate bill would try to keep federal office affordable by setting spending limits (but with a partial exception for money raised in small amounts in-state, a constructive Republican suggestion; the bill also favors in-state over out-of-state individual contributions in other important respects). The spending limits would be voluntary, but candidates who agreed to comply would be given subsidized TV time, cut postal rates and other forms of public support in return. The bill would ban PACs, a showy proposal that is probably neither practicable nor constitutional. If the ban were invalidated by the courts, as even some sponsors expect, a fallback provision would take effect limiting how much a senatorial candidate could take from all PACs combined. An effort would also be made to segregate and keep so-called soft money out of federal campaigns, and as a bonus the Senate was shamed into banning honoraria (but in an election year could not bring itself to offset the lost income with a pay raise as the House sensibly did last year).
The bill proposed by the House leadership is structurally similar (one of the reasons to be optimistic that a willing conference committee could succeed). It, too, is built upon spending limits, higher for members who have to undergo primary fights than for those who do not. It is weaker than the Senate bill in squeezing PACs, a more important source of funds for House members, senior ones especially, than they generally are for senators. Our sense is that the House bill is also weaker in the indirect public financing it would provide and in regulating soft money. But it contains some good ideas, mostly heads in the right direction and is eminently fixable.
Republicans favor another plan, but many Democrats who are principal beneficiaries of the present system are also sulking. They are looking for excuses to vote no. Some of them, newly fastidious, are arguing that the proposed rule setting the terms of debate is too restrictive; others are setting themselves up to vote no as purists if, as many expect, a strengthening amendment fails. But on this one it's simple. A vote for the leadership is a vote to go to conference. A vote against is a vote to keep Congress on the take.