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    A Times Editorial

    Moving toward reform

    Shays-Meehan isn't perfect, but the Enron scandal helped shame enough lawmakers into supporting the effort to limit soft money's corrupting influence.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 17, 2002

    Maybe one day we will have to give Kenneth Lay some of the credit. Certainly, the $2-million Enron gave to Republicans and Democrats alike in the last election cycle is now viewed as a political scandal and not as political speech. What happened in the wee hours of Thursday morning in the U.S. House of Representatives was refreshing, if not historic. A bipartisan effort to stem the incessant flow of soft campaign money survived political hypocrisy and threats from the Republican leadership to emerge intact, ready for Senate action.

    Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., among the 41 Republicans who broke ranks with Speaker Dennis Hastert to support Democrats in reform, mentioned the Enron contributions. "This is not about philosophy," he told colleagues. "It is about access and influence, and it corrupts our process."

    The bill has a chance to become the first major campaign finance reform since Watergate, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has promised to bring Shays-Meehan to a prompt vote in the Senate where it faces a threatened filibuster. Even President Bush, who dueled with Sen. John McCain over campaign finance reform in the 2000 presidential primaries, seems to recognize the political implications. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was reduced to telling reporters that "the process is moving forward and the president is pleased."

    This is not to suggest that the House bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., is the perfect remedy to what ails modern politics. The legislation has flaws that will need to be corrected by the courts. Still, the core of the bill takes aim at the insidious and largely invisible practice of funneling unlimited amounts of special-interest money to the political parties, which then turn around and use it to finance campaigns for candidates. These unregulated contributions, called soft money, have soared from $86-million in the 1992 presidential election to $500-million in the 2000 election. Shays-Meehan would ban such donations to national parties, although it would allow them to state and local parties, in amounts up to $10,000.

    The ban is a step in the right direction but undoubtedly will produce unintended consequences, such as the possibility that big-money donors will parcel out their gifts in 50 equal installments to state parties.

    The more worrisome part of Shays-Meehan, however, is its constitutionally flawed attempt to regulate interest groups' support for candidates in the days leading up to an election. The aim is to prevent these groups from acting as secret back channels for candidates, but the bill goes entirely too far. In banning the use of soft money to finance "issue ads" during the 60 days leading up to an election, or 30 days before a primary, the bill silences not only the groups that are secret servants for the candidates but those with no collusion that have every right to support or attack the candidates of their choice.

    Should Shays-Meehan become law, these constitutional issues will no doubt find their way into the courts. And that's not necessarily bad. The Supreme Court's Buckley vs. Valeo decision, which governs much of today's campaign law, is more than a quarter-century old, and the landscape has changed significantly since then. The unregulated soft money that was supposed to be used for "party building" has become a lucrative stash for candidates instead. Four years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy told an audience that Buckley is "a case that ought to be looked at again in light of our experience" in presidential elections. "We must seriously consider the role of money in politics and also what it's done to the office of the president."

    That may be the greatest value of the House vote on Thursday. The issue of campaign reform is now out in the public, pried loose from stubborn political leaders and placed on the national calendar. Shays-Meehan is by no means a perfect tool, and we hope the courts will strike down those parts of it that impinge on the First Amendment. But the law's passage is worthy of note. In 2002, in the U.S. House, 240 politicians said they were fed up with the taint big money brings to government. For that, perhaps, we'll thank Mr. Lay.

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