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Landmark on a Long Road

McCain-Feingold does not end the fight against campaign finance abuses, but it is a dramatic step.

April 03, 2001

Of course, the political sharpies are looking for ways to get around the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation even as the final debate still echoes in the U.S. Senate chamber. Yes, without doubt they will find some method to evade the spirit of the law and, at least for a while, shift more money to campaigns under a cloak of anonymity. Foes will claim this as evidence of the futility of it all and argue that the reform bill is a massive affront to the 1st Amendment's guardianship of free speech as well. Don't listen to them.

The measure, which passed the Senate Monday 59 to 41, is a landmark in the long struggle to limit the corrupting influence of big money in the political system, even with the compromises that were needed to win Senate passage. The measure merits passage in the House without major change, and President Bush should sign it without protest.

Neither Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) nor Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) ever claimed that their bill could fix all the evils of the campaign finance regulatory system. Their major target was the most offensive loophole that had emerged since the last major reform, passed in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. So-called soft money was intended to allow donors to give unlimited money to the political parties, ostensibly for party-building activities such as voter registration and getting out the vote.

The 1974 law barred this money from being used directly for or against a specific candidate, but the prohibition generally was negated by court interpretation. In the last election, the two parties spent, through a variety of committees, about $500 million in soft money, mostly for and against candidates.

Experience at the local, state and federal level teaches that reform is a never-ending process. Consider the effect of Proposition 34, the so-called state campaign finance reform sponsored by leaders of the Legislature and approved by state voters last year. Proposition 34 purported to modernize campaign reporting procedures by using the Internet. However, one provision specifically allows organizations, including state political parties, to accept large contributions to finance communications with their members without having to report them until after an election. This means that in Los Angeles' election the information won't be disclosed until after next Tuesday's vote, a situation that has resulted in major last-minute infusions by the parties in the mayoral contest, even though it is technically a nonpartisan race. The state Republican Party has already sent multiple mailers to GOP voters on behalf of mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff, and Democrats are launching a similar effort for Antonio Villaraigosa.

The delayed-reporting clause was a surprise even to Karen Getman, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, who says the full impact of the provision is difficult to measure yet. One thing is clear: This loophole needs to be closed before the 2002 state elections. There is no reason that any major contribution or expenditure on behalf of a candidate should not be reported immediately.

As for McCain-Feingold, there should be less hand-wringing over what it fails to do and more regret that it took so long, and so much effort, to get even this far. In the end, the two senators succeeded only because they refused to give up.

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