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Reformers Try, Try Again

Campaign finance reform is back - well, sort of. Much depends on whether the bill stopped by a Senate filibuster last year can get an early start this year.

That decision rests with House Speaker Dennis Hastert. A delegation of Republicans who want campaign reform, including the elimination of so-called "soft money," met with Mr. Hastert recently to press their case. (Unregulated soft money goes to political parties, while "hard money" goes directly to candidates and is subject to legal limitations.)

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They realize, as do Democrats pushing for the same legislation, that if the Speaker sticks to his stated plan of delaying a debate on the bill until well into September, reform is dead for this year, too. That late in the current session, there would be little time to complete House action and build the needed support in the Senate.

Significantly, last week House majority leader Dick Armey chimed in on this subject. Mr. Armey, a staunch opponent of banning soft money, feels nonetheless the House ought to move the legislation by the end of July.

July is better than September, certainly, but an even fairer shot would be before the July 4 break. If debate is pushed to the end of that month, the August recess looms, and after that the rush to complete spending bills by Oct. 1, when a new fiscal year begins.

By agreeing to an earlier date, Hastert will spare himself the possible embarrassment of being overruled by a petition circulated by pro-reform Democrats. If most of the 32 Republicans who visited Hastert were to sign, they would be able to force the bill to the floor. Much more important, he'll be giving the public the opportunity to weigh, yet again, a matter of great importance.

Opponents of reform are quick to raise constitutional objections to a soft-money ban, and to another part of the pending legislation - its restrictions on "issue ads" placed by private groups seeking to influence an election. Whether such provisions offend the Constitution is a matter of debate. A 1976 Supreme Court ruling on campaign-finance laws left room for legal limits on contributions, while equating campaign spending with protected free speech.

But let these constitutional questions, too, be aired on the House and Senate floors.

Meanwhile, we have fund-raising for the 2000 race already mounting toward totals that will dwarf those of past years. We have politicians spending more time than ever on that partisan business, rather than the people's business. And we have former Clinton fund-raiser Johnny Chung telling how the soft-money loophole was used during the '96 campaign to illegally funnel money from Chinese military interests into American politics.

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The need to fix a lax, ineffective campaign-finance system has never been clearer.

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