Test of the year

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Senate Democrats who supported campaign finance reform when they knew it had no chance continue to flinch now that its prospects are more serious. The latest is Louisiana's John Breaux. The Senate is scheduled to take up the leading reform bill, by Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold, next week. Mr. Breaux, who voted with his party in favor of McCain-Feingold in the past, was asked on CNN over the weekend whether he was "having second thoughts" about the measure. Yes, was his answer. "I think that, as you look into it more carefully in more detail, you find out that it has the potential to create an unlevel playing field. I don't think that's what people want."

Mr. Breaux is not the only member of his party to have begun to express such thoughts. Sen. Robert Torricelli, recent chairman of the Democratic senatorial campaign finance committee, was quoted as saying much the same several days before. Their objection appears to be, at least in part, that McCain-Feingold would outlaw only the worst of current campaign finance abuses, the so-called soft-money system at which the parties are equally adept. The less-abusive means of fund raising that it would meanwhile leave intact are ones at which Republicans do better.

Unfair, the Democrats say. Sen. Breaux suggested that the public might be content instead with mere disclosure of contributions "to make sure that they know where the money is coming" from. But disclosure clearly isn't enough to discourage a growing pattern of abuse, in which lobbyists buy access with donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Democrats will find it hard, or should, to vote no on a bill that just a few months ago they were supporting. Some may therefore not oppose the legislation but seek to amend it in such a way as to either leave it ineffectual or force the other party to oppose it; whatever works. Some Republicans are likely to try, as they have in the past, to play the same game -- proposing restrictions on union activity, for example, that would almost surely cause Democrats to desert the legislation.

Sen. McCain was on the same TV show last weekend. He explained in part why the bill faces such opposition. "One ... we're asking incumbents to vote to change a system that keeps incumbents in office. ... (Only) 20 or 30 House seats ... were truly contested in the last election and seven or eight Senate seats ... because most incumbents are safe. And second, we are asking for a vote that will diminish the power and influence of every special interest that uses money in order to gain the access and the influence that accrues from that. ... So every one of these interests will do everything they can to preserve the status quo." And so most are. This bill, not the tax bill, is the test of this year.

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