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Life Signs in Campaign Reform

Almost miraculously, there is new life in the effort to free Washington from one of its most corrupting influences: unregulated “soft money” contributions to political parties by corporations, unions and the rich.

Reformers, however, are not celebrating yet. Although Republican leaders agreed Wednesday to revive reform legislation and allow a House vote on it next month, they acted only after a petition by House members gained nearly enough signatures to compel them to do so.

Common Cause President Ann McBride says she expects some lawmakers to “play every procedural game in the book to postpone real reform, like introducing killer amendments and phony reform bills.”

Still, genuine bipartisan reform is back in the realm of possibility. Earlier this year, a bipartisan majority of senators voted for a sweeping campaign finance reform bill, and if representatives back its House counterpart, a bill by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), the reform juggernaut could be hard to stop. In the Senate, proponents are now vowing another effort at reform.

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House Republican leaders say the debate will have to begin with a weaker bill by a bipartisan group of freshmen led by Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark). But the reformers who have so successfully defied their leaders can do it again, grafting the tougher wording of the Shays bill onto the Hutchinson measure. Thus in the end the ban on soft money could be extended to state and local parties, there could be a tough requirement for disclosures about funding of issue advertising and, also as in Shays-Meehan, there could be spending caps on these “issue ads,” which are transparently intended not to explain an issue but to sway the outcome of a particular political race.

Much has been made of how soft money inappropriately influences elected officials, but its most insidious influence may be on voters. Growing numbers of Americans stay away from the polls as they grow increasingly cynical about the political process. In this election year, both parties can only gain by passing genuine reform that reduces monied clout in the campaign process.


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