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Time for a Fallback Strategy in Bid for Campaign Reform

If anyone wonders why Congress is not moving resolutely toward election campaign finance reform, the simple answer has been provided by Becky Cain, the president of the League of Women Voters: Most people in Congress oppose reform. After all, the present, sordid system got them there. The mortal fear of incumbents is that reform will make it easier for challengers to kick them out the next time around.

However, there are a few stalwarts of reform, and under the leadership of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) they are co-sponsoring a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill. Their hope has been that congressional investigations into the fund-raising excesses of the 1996 elections will shame Congress into accepting reform. So far, there is not the slightest hint that Capitol Hill has any shame in the matter.

Now, President Clinton, a McCain-Feingold supporter, is seeking to pressure Congress by proposing that the Federal Elections Commission use its own regulatory powers to eliminate the most blatant loophole in current law--the “soft money” provision allowing unregulated donations to political parties for “party- building” activities. This is the loophole that allowed the two major parties to pervert the post-Watergate reforms of 1974 by raising and spending more than $250 million in the last campaign.

Prospects that the FEC will take such unprecedented action and be prepared to enforce it seem slight. But Clinton should be commended at least for keeping the issue in the public eye.

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If the president hopes to have any real effect, however, he should consider a candid television address to the nation on the issue. He could speak from experience about the manner in which the insatiable demand for money consumes a campaign committee and blurs its adherence to both the letter and the spirit of the law.

The League of Women Voters, a backer of McCain-Feingold, now is saying perhaps it’s time to develop a backup strategy in light of the barriers faced by the bill. The league would start with the elimination of soft money--"the loophole that threatens the most basic safeguards against corruption.”

Reformers should not give up yet on McCain-Feingold. But reality demands a fallback strategy, and soft money is the place to start.


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