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Debating the rules of the game

American elections are played by two sets of rules these days. The one, governing candidates and their parties, is fairly strict about how they take and spend their money. The other, applying to "independent" expenditures by citizens expressing their freedom of speech under the First Amendment, is essentially this: Anything goes. To anyone with a cause _ or a grudge _ the sky is the limit on spending to influence an election so long as it is not coordinated with a candidate.

That's been the law since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Buckley vs. Valeo 21 years ago. The majority rationalized that while money given to a candidate to spend may be potentially corrupting, money spent by others on his or her behalf is not so suspect and deserves protection under the Constitution.

But the key differences _ including the all-important one of whether candidates and their parties can ever be "independent" of each other _ have become badly blurred. Following another Supreme Court ruling, which applied only to prenomination spending but has been widely misinterpreted to mean a lot more, the state and national parties dumped enormous sums of "soft money" into a wide variety of campaigns last year. Much of it went into print and broadcast propaganda that set new lows for taste and irresponsibility.

Any legislation that proposes to clean up politics will have to address this problem. But when the Florida House of Representatives passed its comprehensive bill earlier this month, the leadership left the issue to separate bills that are just starting to be considered.

Not so the drafters of an improved version that the Senate will consider today. The Senate Executive Business, Ethics and Elections Committee has adopted a brace of amendments aimed at independent spending. A Democrat amendment, passed with Republican Sen. Jack Latvala's swing vote, defines independent spending as something not coordinated with a political party. Latvala's own amendment, adopted by the same 6-5 roll call, builds on that theme by requiring the parties to forfeit their shares of the candidates' state filing fees if they participate in any independent spending or otherwise violate contribution limits.

A second Latvala innovation says that registered political committees that use public facilities to collect dues may not spend independently. Though this limit would not apply to most endorsement messages to their own members, a stiff fight is expected from the teachers and other public unions, who are the obvious targets of this provision.

The debate will be a field day for constitutional lawyers as well. The provisions aimed at parties seem solid enough, especially when keyed to a quid pro quo: the money the state collects for them. There is more of an argument with respect to the public employee unions; rival political interests that spend independently would not suffer a similar disadvantage. Yet another provision in the bill, which requires candidates to be furnished in advance with the texts of independently financed campaign ads aimed at them, appears to be clearly unconstitutional. There's talk of a compromise amendment when the bill comes up today.

The committee majority deserves credit for attempting to make all politicians play by the same set of rules. Let the debate begin.

Martin Dyckman is an associate editor of the Times.