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Round Two to the Reformers

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No sooner did President Bush sign campaign finance reform into law March 27 than opponents started searching like a pack of bloodhounds for loopholes. But their defeat in a House vote Wednesday showed that the usual tricks may not suffice this time.

Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and an avowed enemy of campaign finance reform, attached a campaign finance loophole provision to an otherwise mom-and-apple-pie tax bill that would have permitted some taxpayers to pay the government in installments and given electronic filers an extra 15 days next year. Thanks to Thomas, however, it would also have encouraged the revival of unregulated “soft money,” the target of the long fight for reform. It would have weakened the campaign donation reporting requirements for certain private nonprofit political organizations, ranging from the Republican Leadership Coalition to the Sierra Club.

According to a new report called “Deja Vu Soft Money,” by the independent government watchdog Public Citizen, 25 such groups have raised $67.3 million in the past 18 months for political activities.

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Thomas thought that he could ram the measure through by firmly linking it to the tax bill, cynically believing that no elected official could safely oppose a taxpayer rights measure. He refused to allow any amendments, and what little debate took place was scheduled for late at night so that it would attract as little press as possible.

Such bullying tactics have succeeded in the past. Thomas and his friends introduced endless alternative “reform” bills in past years. After the Shays-Meehan bill, the original reform, successfully fought off the pretenders, its consideration was delayed six months because proponents had to obtain enough signatures to force the House GOP leadership to call a vote. In the end, it was only the Enron scandal that generated the final signatures.

Foes of campaign finance reform will not stop trying to whittle away at it. But supporters proved Wednesday that they can muster a successful defense in Congress. Now backers are hoping for a toughened Federal Election Commission and support in the federal courts to keep reform from sagging.

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