The cynical riddle of money in politics; Capitol charade: Yeoman work on finance reform faces sabotage in the U.S. Senate.


THE U.S. Senate seems intent on a replay of its disgraceful dodging on campaign finance reform. Political reality, the enduring power of money and manipulation of the rules by majority Republicans oppose a worthy effort by the House.

The party in power always behaves as the GOP does now. A parallel can be found in Annapolis where Democrats rule and where the same sorts of opposition are presented to reformers: The majority knows it got there under the current rules and is loath to change them. For them, it ain't broke.

A majority in the GOP-controlled House, however, does seem to recognize a call for reform. Some lawmakers may have voted yes, confident the Senate would vote no, but the Shays-Meehan bill passed by a wide margin, 252-177. With the 2000 election at hand, federal lawmakers appear convinced that Americans want change in some critical areas.

The House measure would curb fund raising for so-called issues ads -- money that ostensibly goes toward educating the public, a widely recognized and legally sanctioned ruse.

The money too often aids candidates directly.

Within the more general debate, the discussion of "soft money" is the most cunning. Supporters of the system invoke free speech and minority rights in defense of soft money's role in a system kept in place for the powerful: incumbent lawmakers, big money givers and other wealthy interests.

Here the system is most out of democratic balance and susceptible to abuse.

An individual may contribute only $1,000 to candidates in federal races, but no limits exist for the so-called soft money. The very words of the debate need changing: What is soft about hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars making an immense impact on elections and policy making? This is the heart of the matter, a well-recognized corruption of the process: These dollars buy influence and everyone in the game knows it.

The givers are confident that candidates, if elected, will be decisively grateful to them at critical moments -- when an environmental rule blocks a lucrative business venture, for example.

In an effort to move some reform, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican seeking his party's nomination for president, has proposed stripping off a curb on fund raising by independent groups. Here the difficulty of passing a practical reform arises yet again. To get it past political hurdles, Mr. McCain may have to make it useless.

No wonder people outside the beltway find the Congress so worthy of scorn.

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