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Campaign Finance Reform

02/19/02 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin

A new day has dawned for campaign finance reform. Chances are excellent that the Shays-Meehan bill will become law.

After a day and a night of man¿uvering that would make Machiavelli proud, Democrats and some 39 Republicans were able to fend off all amendments and reject alternate bills, despite a strong Republican push to kill the legislation.

If the bill had been amended, it would have forced it into a conference committee, which meant that the Republican leadership in the House could have guaranteed its demise by slow asphyxiation, refusing to let it get back on the floor for air.

What will change if this bill becomes law?

Some are calling it the most significant campaign finance bill in twenty-five years. It's almost identical to the bill passed in the Senate, sponsored by Senator John McCain.

The bill would ban unlimited contributions, known as soft money, to political parties. Some 500 million dollars was raised that way in the last presidential election.

Equally important, the bill would ban outside organizations from purchasing advertisements 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

These ads are usually the fiercest attack ads - and are examples of the worst of dirty politics.

There is little doubt that the Enron scandal helped solidify the coalition that garnered the 241-to-191 vote tally in favor of the bill. It's ironic that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, one of the biggest abusers of existing law, should become the impetus for tossing that law out.

More significant than the technical details of the bill will be the impact on public confidence in democracy.

Large contributions tilt the scale in favor of the wealthy, who inevitably dominate the political dialogue by the mere size of their generosity. And, naturally, they expect something in return.

One result of this major reform will be more small contributions, spread across a wider field of interest groups and individuals.

Small contributions are healthy; they invite public participation in the process. It is only when the few control the system that favoritism emerges and there is danger of corruption.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, said it best on the floor of the House. I quote:

"I rise in strong support of the Shays-Meehan bill. Now is the time for us to do what is right.

"It is time to remove the corrupt influence of soft money on the political process.

"It is time to open up the political process and let the average person come in and participate.

"It's time to let all of our citizens have an equal voice¿."

End of quote.

Today, John Lewis has other marchers on his side, fighting for fairness and openness in government. This bill isn't a panacea, and it can't compete with the Olympics in suspense; but campaign finance reform trained hard for years against the nay-saying competition, and with its passage it will be worthy of the gold.

This is Madeleine Kunin from Burlington.

--Madeleine Kunin is a former Governor of Vermont.

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