All those members of Congress who supported campaign finance reform in past years with considerable righteousness should now stand up and be counted. The climactic debate that opened in the House Tuesday may well be the final discourse on this issue for years to come.
As in the past, the reform measure sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., is being assaulted by a series of amendments that purport to improve the bill. In truth, they are calculated to bleed away support from the fragile coalition behind the measure. What helps one interest group or congressional caucus will do nothing for the ordinary people disenfranchised by the money that dominates the current system.
A similar version of the bill easily passed the House last year, but at that time some House members voted for the measure only because they knew it would not get past the Senate. This year, the Senate acted first and passed, by a resounding 59 to 41, a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis.
If a final reform bill is to emerge from Congress, it's critical that the House-passed version be very close to the Senate measure. That would give Senate foes fewer targets to shoot at in conference.
The major feature of both bills is a ban on the so-called soft money that has increasingly corrupted political campaigns. Post-Watergate law allows unlimited contributions by corporations, labor unions and individuals to political parties for "party-building purposes" such as voter registration, education and get-out-the-vote campaigns. The money was not supposed to support or oppose individual candidates. But through a loophole and court interpretations, the money has flowed to candidates anyway, to the tune of about $500 million in the last election cycle.
This year, reform's critics have raised fears among Latino and black House members that a soft money ban would hurt their causes by limiting voter registration efforts and get-out-the-vote campaigns. But Shays-Meehan gets at the heart of what's wrong with the system -- the overpowering influence of corporate America and organized labor. For the most part, those forces have not been concerned with black and Latino causes.
We need reform because it is the right thing. It would not cure every flaw, but it would help straighten out an electoral system that has been distorted by obscene sums of money. House members should not lose sight of the main goal in a flurry of shill amendments that look good but are supported by deeply anti-reform forces.
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