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Applaud the campaign bill as a first step

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THE elation among reformers over the Senate's passage of campaign finance reform last week was immediately dampened by a chorus of cynics.

"The bill is patently unconstitutional and will be thrown out by the Supreme Court."

"Money will flow just as rapidly but now through less accountable passageways."

"The free-speech rights of citizens will be grievously restricted, rendering them unable to criticize politicians close to an election."

"Political parties will be weakened and independent groups strengthened."

"Savvy political consultants will quickly identify new loopholes to render the law ineffective."

Let's set aside the obvious internal inconsistencies of these charges and the question of why opponents waged such a titanic struggle against the legislation if it was doomed to fail at the hands of the federal courts or entrepreneurial political actors.

The reality is that the bill now ready for the president's signature was carefully crafted to withstand constitutional challenges and anticipate unintended consequences. It reflects a new and welcome pragmatism in the reform community, a willingness to take incremental steps to repair the most egregious tears in the fabric of federal campaign-finance law.

Citizens should welcome Congress's action for two reasons. First, the law will alter the way political money is raised and spent – in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Second, taking steps to rein in soft money (unlimited political contributions) and electioneering under the guise of issue advocacy is an essential prerequisite to making further improvements in the campaign system.

Some changes are relatively easy to forecast. National party committees and elected officials will no longer be able to receive or shake down mega-contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals. The scramble for soft money has distorted how party leaders and aspiring leaders spend their time, who they talk to, and how they structure their political operations.

Fundraising will continue apace, but within the confines of federal law: no funds from corporate or union treasuries, only from their voluntary political action committees, reasonable limits on the size of contributions to candidates and parties, and no sleight-of-hand transfers among national and state parties to undermine legal limits and muddle disclosure. This will reinsert some much-needed space between big-interested money and public-policy decisions.


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