April 06, 2020

Campaign finance reform isn’t dead, only sleeping. Sen. Susan Collins, who developed a well-deserved reputation as a crusader for the cause last summer, says it’s up to the public to shake it fully awake.

Maine’s junior senator, as most disgruntled voters recall, was one of the few Republicans to sign on to McCain-Feingold, the filibustered bill that would ban the soft money slush funds both parties adore and the misleading, phony issue ads both practice so well.

The bill will get a second chance, it has been promised a straight up-or-down vote by March 6. That’s good — it’s a lot easier, on paper at least, to get 51 votes for a simple majority than it is to get 60 to break a filibuster — but Collins warns that success depends upon more than simple math.

First, there’s the hypocrisy factor. While McCain-Feingold had 53 votes in line last time, Collins rightly worries that some may have been pledged in the comfort of knowing the filibuster would not be broken. Will those 53, or even 51, stand firm when the votes actually count?

Then there’s amendment fever. The upcoming simple-majority vote, according to the deal worked out between Republican and Democratic leadership, will be on Majority Leader Trent Lott’s motion to table McCain-Feingold only. After that, the bill will be subject to any amendment any stonewaller can dream up, such as the Labor-goring amendment that killed it last time.

And, there’s good old inertia, of the bipartisan variety. Veteran members of Congress know the ropes, they know the players, they know who’s good for how much. The system may stink, but they’re used to the stench.

The answer, Collins says, is public pressure and a sense of timing. Phone calls and letters that didn’t make much of a dent in the status quo before could pack considerably more punch in an election year.

But this isn’t just a constituent/elected representative matter. One would have been hard pressed last year to find a single rank-and-file American in favor of obscenely huge, unrestricted contributions, influence peddling and lying. Special interest groups, from the NRA to the ACLU, took up that cause. They’ve paid a lot for access over the years. They’re not about to give it up without a fight.

So, as Congress convenes and as March 6 approaches, citizens interested in good government should contact their elected officials and tell them to act. While the citizens are at it, they should get in touch with whatever membership groups they belong to and tell them to stay the heck out of the way. All that’s at stake here, as Collins says, “is restoring a sense of trust and integrity in government.” And that ought to be worth a couple of postage stamps and a few toll calls.

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