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Courting Campaign Reform

Any incorporated business has been banned from giving direct campaign contributions to candidates or political parties since 1907. Congress wisely knew how important it was to stem the influence of large amounts of money finding their way to politicians' pockets. Over the years, of course, those who would unduly influence lawmakers found clever ways around the law.

Monday's Supreme Court campaign-finance decision really did nothing more than uphold that longstanding government ban. But its ruling is an encouraging indicator that the court may not be too hostile to the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which was signed into law by President Bush last year.

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The high court reviewed the case of a North Carolina anti-abortion group - an incorporated nonprofit funded mostly by private contributions - that sought to make direct contributions to candidates and campaigns out of its general fund instead of its political action committee. Had the high court approved such a practice, that would have allowed this advocacy group and others like it to spend potentially millions of unregulated dollars from their organizational treasuries, and helped pave the way around existing individual campaign donation limits.

Sound like a way to resurrect soft money? Yes, it is. And the BCRA bans soft money, those dollars flowing from wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions into campaigns.

"An attack on the federal prohibition of direct corporate political contributions goes against the current of a century of congressional efforts to curb corporations' potentially deleterious influences on federal elections," Justice David Souter wrote for the 7-to-2 majority, in reversing the lower court's decision.

In passing BCRA, Congress saw the need for some reform of a campaign-funding system that's adversely altered American politics. The BCRA, however, was swiftly put to a legal challenge by those who would maintain the status quo.

Last month, a federal appeals court issued a 1,638-page complicated ruling on the BCRA that the Supreme Court will review in a special September session. Now, the court must sort out the details and rule for citizens tired of the corrosive influence of money in American politics.