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Bucks for Ballots

ANY reform of the campaign-finance laws for congressional races must satisfy two criteria: First, reform measures should reduce the time and effort candidates must devote to a demeaning chase for dollars and should reduce the financial clout wielded by special interests. Second, reform measures should trim the edge enjoyed by incumbents and make House and Senate races more competitive.A major barrier to campaign-finance reform in this country has been the fact that the two criteria - one anti-corruption, the other pro-competition - often are not complementary. When the House of Representatives passed a campaign-reform bill last month, the vote - as on the Senate's version of the bill in May - followed party lines. The reason: Democrats, who hold a majority in both chambers, favor (or want to appear to favor) ethics over competition; if measures to siphon some of the money out of politics put challengers at a disadvantage, say the Democrats, the consequence is unintended. Republicans, ever hopeful of gaining control of Congress, counter that challengers need sufficient funds to overcome incumbents' inherent advantages, but that donations should come largely from individual citizens, not from organized special interests or the government. Consequently, although the two bills differ in details, Democrats in both houses generally favor voluntary spending caps in congressional races, with federal subsidies as a lure to compliance. Republicans resist spending caps and federal subsidies (and President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that contains those elements). Instead, Republicans favor stricter limits on donations by political action committees, which give heavy preference to incumbents, and tax credits as an inducement to wider citizen in volvement in campaign finance. We support efforts to get lawmakers off the fund-raising treadmill, which takes their time and concentration away from governance, and to lessen their need to curry favor with special interests. (Congress's inattention to the shenanigans of high-giving thrift operators played a big part in the S&L debacle.) At the same time, we believe that congressional races need to be more competitive, and that tougher political competition is a better antidote to the problems of our political system than are misbegotten term limits. The Senate and House campaign-reform bills include some beneficial ideas for lowering money's voice in politics. However, both have the effect of shielding incumbents from competition. Can the two goals of campaign reform be reconciled? Tomorrow we will offer a few suggestions.

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