Charles H. Keating Jr. was the CEO and owner of the Lincoln Savings & Loan in California, which collapsed owing U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion. In 1986 Keating was sued for fraud and racketeering by the federal government and sought the help and intervention of five U.S. senators to whom he had collectively made more than $1.3 million in campaign funds. The "Keating Five" were subjects of a publicized investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

In November 1989, Keating made the case for serious campaign-finance reform when he bluntly told The Post: "One question among the many others raised in recent weeks had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way that I can: I certainly hope so."

In 1999 Big Money in Washington buys a lot more than access. It buys influence and public policy through "soft money" -- the unlimited and unregulated six- and seven-figure sums from wealthy individuals, global corporations and organized labor. It is given to political parties but in recent elections has been redeployed, in disdainful mockery of existing election laws, to direct support of individual candidates.

The chances are good that your own life today is being adversely affected by a soft money-purchased public policy. This is not some crackpot liberal conspiracy theory hatched in the shallow end of the pool at a left-wing think tank. Just listen to American hero and presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose unflagging commitment to campaign-finance reform was almost certainly shaped when he was named by the Senate Democratic majority as the only Republican in the Keating Five. Judged "guilty" then of nothing more than bad judgment, McCain today is the conservative chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. He tells primary voters why your "cable rates went up, phone rates went up and huge broadcasting giants received free billions of dollars in digital spectrum that belong to the American people."

The reason: "Every company affected by [the 1996 Telecommunications Act] had purchased a seat at the table with soft money," explained McCain. And ordinary voters -- with no "soft money" of their own to kick in -- "had no seat at the table." McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold are the Senate sponsors of a campaign-finance bill that bears their name and that would, among other things, prohibit the national political parties from receiving or spending "soft money."

In the House, which will take up the subject of campaign-finance law this week, the principal reform bill, nearly identical to McCain-Feingold, is sponsored by Rep. Martin Meehan, a tenacious Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Chris Shays, a stubborn Connecticut Yankee Republican.

According to Shays, "A majority of Republican House members today want to support a strong patients' bill of rights bill" to limit the power of managed care companies. Then why is there no such GOP bill? "Soft money from HMOs and insurance companies" is the frank and courageous answer of Chris Shays.

The numbers support Shays. In the most recent campaign cycle, insurance interests and HMOs gave nearly $8 million in soft money, backing Republicans over Democrats by a ratio of much more than four to one. Where else has "soft money" flexed its legislative muscle?

In the judgment of Shays, "Tobacco money was instrumental in stopping antismoking legislation." The soft money totals from tobacco interests: $5.5 million, 84 percent of which went to the Republican Party. Soft money touches every one of us.

To be fair, Shays is not alone. In addition to McCain and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), there are honorable and respected Republicans calling for the abolition of soft money. Among them are former presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush, former Republican Senate leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and former Republican House leader Bob Michel. All these men served long and well both their party and their nation.

In 1999 the same can be said of four unshrinking mavericks -- Shays, Meehan, Feingold and McCain.