Doing the right thing


THE LATE, LATE SHOW Wednesday night didn't draw an Olympic-size audience, but it wasn't for lack of drama. We're talking about the one on C-SPAN, starring the U.S. House of Representatives and featuring the debate and vote on the Shays-Meehan bill, which sharply limits so-called "soft money" contributions to political parties.

The show had everything: tension, mystery, histrionics, a big-star cameo appearance (Charlton Heston phoned in on behalf of the National Rifle Association) and - best of all - a happy ending. As 3 a.m. approached Thursday, the House voted 240-189 to approve the measure.

Passage was a bipartisan effort, with 39 Republicans voting against party lines for the most far-reaching reform of campaign finance regulations in a generation. Not one of those voting seemed unaware of the impact of the moment, and no wonder.

If signed into law, this legislation would help restore balance and a sense of fair play to the American political process.

It wouldn't take the money out of politics, and that would not be a wise goal in any case. But by curtailing the amount that labor unions, special interest groups and corporations can give to political parties, the new law would create more equitable campaign financing and would help diminish the perception (and the reality) that big bucks buy special access to politicians and the political process unavailable to the un-moneyed citizen.

Ironically, one of the key players in the drama has been the disgraced Enron Corp., whose shady dealings and ultimate downfall have kept a number of Republicans, including President Bush, from opposing too vociferously a law aimed at eliminating the kind of largesse that Enron executives threw freely around the political arena in the 1990s. These days, no one wants to get tarred with the Enron brush.

But it's not over yet. Even though President Bush has strongly indicated that he would sign a campaign finance reform measure if presented with one, Republicans are threatening a filibuster in the Senate, which has already passed its own version of this bill.

That would be a mistake. A confluence of political will, ethical rationale and national sentiment has produced a potentially transforming moment in modern American politics. Let it be the law.

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