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Killing it softly

For years, congressional opponents of campaign finance reform used every honest and dishonest tactic they could think of to keep the corrupt status quo intact. Wednesday, they finally did the honorable thing, removing the final parliamentary obstacles to a straightforward up-or-down vote they knew they couldn't win. The Senate's 60-40 approval of the McCain-Feingold legislation, mirroring the House's earlier passage of the companion Shays-Meehan bill, should reduce the distorting influence of unlimited special-interest "soft money" contributions to the national political parties.

President Bush, no fan of campaign finance reform, says he will sign the legislation despite what he considers its flaws. Meanwhile, intellectually honest opponents of McCain-Feingold can transfer their efforts to the courts, where the legislation could be improved through the excision of constitutionally suspect limitations on political speech.

The impact of this legislation has been exaggerated by supporters and opponents alike. Huge amounts of cash will still pour into state and national campaigns through old-fashioned "hard money" contributions. In fact, by raising the cap on the amount individuals can give directly to candidates from $1,000 to $2,000, the legislation gives further advantage to well-to-do contributors. The Pioneers, a group of President Bush's well-heeled supporters, raised $113-million for his 2000 campaign in $1,000 increments. They like the new system just fine. Meanwhile, the major parties and major donors already are exploring new loopholes, such as routing more soft money through state and local party operations, to evade the legislation's ban on soft money to the national parties.

Still, the legislation should bring a greater level of accountability to the political fundraising system. Aggressive power brokers will still wield great influence, but they will have to do it $2,000 at a time. Major corporations, labor unions and other special interests will still be able to bundle large contributions, but they will have to do so in the names of the individual executives and employees who contribute.

The legislation was crafted so that the remainder of its provisions will remain in effect even if the courts strike down one or more of its other restrictions. The courts should quickly rule on the constitutionality of the legislation's restrictions on issue advertising. They prohibit unions, corporations and nonprofit groups from paying for advertisements referring to a specific candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Candidates and parties have exploited those ostensibly "independent" ads to supplement their traditional campaign advertising, but that is no excuse for legislation that curbs constitutionally protected political speech.

No one should mourn the end of the nation parties' addiction to soft money. In the end, though, no law can ensure the integrity of our political system. Politicians, party operatives and major donors now have greater incentive to abide by the spirit of our campaign laws. But those looking to work the system will treat McCain-Feingold as a nuisance that merely forces them to be a bit more creative in their corruption.