A chance to separate money from politics


EVERYONE KNOWS money is the mother's milk of politics. But the House of Representatives this week can sharply curtail its capacity to taint and sour our politics -- something it hasn't done since enacting the post-Watergate reforms of the early 1970s.

To do this, the House must pass the Shays-Meehan bill, which bars "soft money" contributions to the national political parties, and reject alternative bills that gut its reforms along with amendments (even attractive ones) that would banish reform to a black hole of conference committees and obscure parliamentary procedures.

Reform bills passed the House by sizable margins in 1998 and 1999. But this time the stakes are much higher, because the Senate passed parallel legislation last April and the president, with his administration under fire for its ties to Enron Corp., appears loath to veto such a popular, good-government reform. This time, real reform has a real chance, if supporters have the courage to stay the course.

The amount of money involved is staggering. Over the last 10 years, the Democrats have raised $547 million in soft money and the Republicans $622 million.

The rising tide of these unregulated donations by corporations, unions and other special interests makes reform all the more urgent.

In the 1992 election cycle, the national parties raised about $86 million in soft money; by 2000, that figure had ballooned to $495 million.

In 2001 alone, a year without federal elections, the parties raised $151 million, almost 50 percent more than in 1999, the previous year without a federal election.

All this money buys attack ads that sling mud all over our campaigns. And most legislators concede that it also buys special interests a level of access to and influence over officeholders and regulators that undermines public faith in government. That access can crowd out the voices of those who can't make million-dollar contributions.

The recent collapse of Enron has vividly dramatized the dangers of such influence.

The energy-trading company donated $3.6 million in soft money to the two parties between 1989 and 2001, as its lobbyists used their clout to fight off efforts to subject some of the company's baroque financial dealings to more stringent regulation. South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings rightly dubbed former Enron CEO Kenneth L. Lay "the poster child for cash-and-carry government."

There is no evidence that Enron's contributions violated the law. But that is exactly the problem. The unlimited contributions that are currently legal add a whiff of corruption to the entire political process.

Some opponents of reform, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus such as Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, argue that soft money is critical to get-out-the-vote operations and other important party functions. But a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that in 2000, just 8.5 percent of soft money went to voter mobilization efforts, while the lion's share bankrolled attack ads.

And the Shays-Meehan bill allows small soft money donations to state party committees to support grass-roots operations. Mr. Wynn's substitute bill would cap soft money donations, but sets the ceilings so high that it makes a mockery of reform.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has called this debate a legislative "Armageddon" that threatens his party's majority. But this isn't a partisan issue. A number of Republicans support Shays-Meehan, and it's far from clear which party would benefit from its passage. Republicans raise more soft money than Democrats, but they collect more money in other ways, too, and in recent years soft money has constituted a higher percentage of the Democratic Party's revenues than of the GOP's.

No, this isn't Armageddon, and Shays-Meehan would only begin to limit the power of money in politics. But it is a long-overdue chance to clean up our politics a bit. And if public outrage over the Enron scandal doesn't prompt legislators to seize this day, the moment for reform may never arrive.

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