THE SENATE has taken up campaign finance reform in every Congress since the mid-1980s, but rarely has the debate been real. The mostly Democratic proponents have had majorities in favor, but never the votes to break opposing filibusters or overcome the vetoes threatened when the White House was in Republican hands. The proceedings have been heavily scripted, the negative outcomes foreordained.
Most likely that again will be the pattern when the Senate returns to the subject this week. But it doesn't have to be. In the last Congress, seven Republican senators, all still sitting, joined the Democrats in support of the leading reform proposal. Eight more would be required for cloture. There may not be eight others so disposed, but there are some.
These senators may not like the leading bill in all respects, but they also are not comfortable supporting the present system. They will tell you privately, some of them, that it is squalid and should be changed. They ask thereby to be seen as sympathetic to a cause that, in the past, they have voted to thwart. They can't have it both ways. These are the swing senators; call them the responsible Republicans. They could force a compromise, but only if they make it clear that they can no longer be counted on to support a filibuster -- that their votes are in play.
The main reform bill is relatively modest legislation. It seeks not so much to strengthen current campaign finance law as to restore it by banning so-called soft money -- the use of the national party organizations to raise and spend on behalf of their candidates money the candidates are forbidden by law to raise and spend themselves. Opponents denounce the bill as unnecessary, unconstitutional, futile and a plot on the part of the Democrats to negate a natural Republican advantage. None of that seems correct to us.
The people who deny that money has come to play too large a role in our politics -- that offices increasingly are bought even if office-holders are not -- are blowing smoke. These are some of the same people who were denouncing the president, with cause, a couple of years ago for auctioning off the government to raise sufficient funds for his reelection campaign. They make the point that Americans spend more on some minor consumer products than on democracy. That's true. It's likewise true that a senator now has to raise about $2,000 a day every day of a six-year term to finance just an average reelection campaign. Some campaigns cost twice that. Who thinks that's healthy?
The bill is said to infringe on free speech, and plainly there is a tension between the goals of keeping elections clean and free. But limits have existed on the flow of funds into campaigns in this country for almost the entire century, the courts have upheld them and free speech can hardly be said to have been suppressed. The critics say a soft-money ban won't stop the money from flowing, just cause it to be given at a further remove, with less transparency. But the more removed from the candidate, the better. That in a sense is the entire purpose. And if the Republicans, as the better fund-raisers, would suffer from this bill, there are ways to compensate them, most obviously by easing the 25-year-old limits in existing law on the amounts of hard or regulated money that can be raised.
But that won't happen unless they begin to negotiate in precisely the way a filibuster is meant to forestall. The responsible Republicans ought to challenge both parties. The way to do it is to create the risk of enactment.