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Campaign Reform Resurges

Finally, the House of Representatives has begun an extensive debate on a campaign finance reform bill that would close some of the most pernicious loopholes in current law. In starting that debate, a coalition of reform-minded Democrats and Republicans has achieved what many said could not be done.

Reformers will have to maintain a dedicated unity to assure that the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), has a fair chance.

The shame of the 105th Congress is the extent to which the Republican leaders of the House and Senate have promised open and full debate on campaign finance reform and then used every trick available to make certain that legislation never comes to an up-or-down vote. At one point this year, a majority of senators were on the record as supporting a reform bill sponsored by Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) led a filibuster to successfully prevent a vote on the bill on its merits.

Now, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has set in motion an extraordinary, convoluted parliamentary game that will make it extremely difficult to get a fair vote on the House counterpart to McCain-Feingold. Still, it’s difficult to terminally suppress a good idea--and good public policy. Americans want campaign finance reform. The scandals of recent elections have become indigestible to any voter with a conscience. That has been demonstrated several times over in California in votes for reform initiatives.

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On Wednesday, the reform coalition won an important test vote on Shays-Meehan. If the House leadership allows a fair vote on this sound legislation, the bill is likely to prevail. However, Speaker Gingrich and others have another agenda. The House does not allow filibusters, but the GOP leadership came up with the next best thing--a rule allowing consideration of an unlimited number of amendments to 12 different versions of campaign finance reform, including Shays-Meehan. It may be possible to swamp Shays-Meehan with scores of frivolous amendments. That is exactly what the GOP leaders want to do even as they boast of wanting campaign reform.

It is critical that the reform coalition hold together to defeat an amendment up for a vote in a key test today.

Even if the Shays-Meehan bill passes in the House, approval may be so late in the session that chances will be slim that a newly energized reform coalition in the Senate will have time to force a debate.

The greatest ignominy is that the foes of campaign finance restrictions boast of doing so to protect 1st Amendment free speech. Really it can be summed up in two words: Money talks. If the reform coalition remains united over the next seven weeks, there may be a chance to bury this corrupt system, with good riddance.

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