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Politics and Money

ON most of the issues discussed in this series of editorials, including the economy, foreign policy, and health care, the candidates haven't told us what concrete actions each would take in the first 100 days. But here's an issue that's almost cut-and-dried, at least as to the two major-party candidates: If he wins Bill Clinton will sign a campaign-finance reform bill; President Bush won't.

Last spring, after years of partisan bickering, Congress passed a comprehensive campaign-finance bill, but Mr. Bush vetoed it. Mr. Clinton supported the bill, and he has said that as president he will sign similar legislation the moment it lands on his desk.

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A Congress controlled by the Democrats - as it almost certainly will continue to be - is unlikely to adopt a campaign-finance bill along the lines Bush favors. So if Bush is reelected, campaign-finance reform will continue to languish in acrimony and partisan advantage-seeking.

Campaign-finance reform, as important as it is, is not a single issue on which a voter's choice of candidates should hinge. Many issues must be considered. But this newspaper has long favored comprehensive campaign-finance reform; and so, on this issue, we believe that Clinton has the edge.

Of course, that assumes that the bill passed by Congress this year is a good one. Is it?

Most Democrats and many outside analysts say the legislation is good for all Americans because it lessens the clout of special-interest money in politics and levels the playing field for congressional candidates. But most Republicans and other outside analysts counter that the bill is good primarily for Democrats because it protects incumbents from well-financed challengers.

The legislation has a number of complex elements, but at its core is a trade-off: In return for voluntary limits on the amounts that House and Senate candidates will spend on their campaigns (the Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory spending caps violate candidates' right to free speech), public funds will be provided to candidates who accept the limits.

The spending limit for House candidates would be $600,000; for Senate candidates it would be calibrated according to the populations of the states. In return, consenting House candidates would be eligible for federal matching funds up to $200,000; Senate candidates would be eligible for federal vouchers that can be used to purchase television advertising time.

The legislation also cuts amounts that political action committees can contribute to individual candidates, but it doesn't eliminate PAC giving altogether, as some Republicans call for. And it affords some assistance to challengers to offset incumbents' free mailing (franking) privilege.

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A key element of the bill restricts contributions of "soft money" - money raised in virtually unlimited amounts under lax state laws but used indirectly to benefit federal candidates, in circumvention of the federal campaign-finance laws. Using the "soft money" loophole, wealthy donors and special-interest groups have all but nullified the campaign-contribution limits created by the post-Watergate reform legislation.

Republicans oppose the bill on two main grounds. First, they say, taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize politicians' ambitions. Second, campaign-spending limits favor incumbents (the majority of whom are Democrats), they contend. Republicans insist that challengers require unlimited spending rights to offset incumbents' advantages in name recognition and free press coverage.

We regard public campaign grants as an affordable investment in clean government.

As to the contention that spending caps disadvantage challengers, the argument's plausibility is belied by experience, some experts say. Few challengers for congressional seats come close to raising and spending the proposed ceiling amounts. Those who do usually are still greatly outspent by incumbents, who wield more fundraising clout than challengers do. Successful challengers almost always have more important things going for them than open checkbooks.

The proposed legislation isn't perfect; perhaps further adjustments could make the playing field even flatter. But in its basic trade-off and in its restrictions on "soft money," the bill is sound and aught to become law.

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