THERE WERE flickers of further support for campaign finance reform in the mock debate in the Senate this week, but the proceedings were mainly a charade. Two failed cloture votes and on to partial birth abortion. No serious effort was made to amend and thereby increase support for a bill the majority leadership was determined to quash.
A majority of the Senate professes to be in favor of campaign finance reform. Proponents of the leading bill made a great show earlier in the year of insisting that Majority Leader Trent Lott schedule it for debate, else they would shut the Senate down. If Tuesday's mock debate satisfies them, they become part of the charade they profess to deplore. Next year, if not in what remains of this, they need to return to the subject -- prevent other bills from passing, as they can if they will under Senate rules, until theirs receives genuine consideration. If that paralyzes the Senate, so be it. What else of comparable importance does it have to do?
The system of campaign finance is corrupt. Those who profess to see in it the workings of a healthy democracy are indulging in fantasy or hoping to mislead. Money has come to play too large a role in electoral and policy outcomes. Too much of the money is sought from, and given by, interest groups with business before the politicians whom the contributions help to elect. The bulk of the money comes from a very narrow slice of the population. The Republicans are best at the money-raising, and the Republican leadership's position on the issue is clear: It opposes reform; it would rather have the money than the halo.
The question is the firmness on the other side. There is a group of Republicans -- perhaps enough to make the parliamentary difference -- who claim to be offended by the present system yet have consistently voted with the leadership to block reform. They can't have it both ways; were they to declare their independence, they might well force both parties to the bargaining table. Three -- Sens. Sam Brownback, Tim Hutchinson and William Roth -- did give such an indication Tuesday, suggesting a willingness to compromise. Two other of the seven Republicans who have supported reform in the past -- Sens. Arlen Specter and John Chafee -- balked at the compromise proposal, but most likely their objections could be met.
The zeal among the Democrats is likewise untested. They've had a free ride in the sense of being able to support the leading reform bill secure in the knowledge that it lacked the votes to pass. This is a modest bill that in its most recent form would ban only the most egregious abuse of the frail current campaign finance law -- the use of the national political parties to raise and spend in behalf of their candidates so-called soft money the candidates are forbidden to raise and spend themselves. The Democrats are making heavy use of the practice even as they support the ban; they say they can't afford to abandon it unilaterally.
The president is in a similarly contorted position; he professes support for a reform bill that his own fund-raising exploits in the 1996 campaign helped to inspire. He called the outcome Tuesday "a victory for the politics of cynicism." But it's a cynicism he has helped to create. The way to erase it is to hammer out and pass a decent bill. The only way to do that is to threaten otherwise to shut the Senate down. The tactic has worked in the past; no other bill should pass until this does. Why doesn't the president say that?