Alaskans can take pride that Sen. Ted Stevens was one of 12 Republicans who helped the Senate pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Showing his independent and reformist streak, Sen. Stevens voted against a weaker substitute and for final passage, bucking party leadership along the way.
The measure has three key elements:
--It bans ''soft money,'' the unlimited, unregulated flow of special-interest cash to political parties;
--It sets new limits and disclosure rules for independent ads that run before an election; and
--It increases the campaign contribution limit to $2,000 to help offset inflation since the limit was established 26 years ago.
With Senate approval Monday, the prospects for McCain-Feingold have never been better. The House has passed similar legislation twice already, and President Bush appears open to signing an updated bill should it reach his desk.
Sen. Stevens' support for reform wasn't completely unswerving. He voted for an unsuccessful ''nonseverability'' amendment that would have sunk the whole law if any part ultimately is found to be unconstitutional. Demanding constitutional perfection from a bill as complex as this one, treading on an area of great constitutional sensitivity, is asking too much.
Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski parted ways with his senior colleague and opposed McCain-Feingold down the line, saying he believed it unconstitutional. His concerns were widely shared in the Senate, but McCain-Feingold supporters offered strong rebuttals.
For example, opponents said freedom of speech was compromised by the bill's new rules for ads by independent groups or individuals within 60 days of an election. Currently, anybody can raise any amount of money to buy ads blasting or praising a candidate, without having to disclose who is paying for them.
McCain-Feingold sets careful limits on such ads. Corporations and unions would be barred from touting a candidate in ads. Instead, they would have to fund them through political action committees, which collect voluntary donations. Advocacy groups likewise could run the ads with funds raised specifically for that purpose as long as they disclose large donors. This part of the bill may have a constitutional burr or two the courts may eventually burnish off, but the basic purpose is sound and the provisions defensible.
Both Sen. Stevens and Sen. Murkowski expressed qualms about a provision requiring broadcasters to charge candidates the lowest existing rates for ads. It's well settled, though, that government can ask more of broadcasters because they are using a public resource -- the airwaves -- or private profit.
A longtime congressional advocate of campaign finance reform once said ''the only reason the current system isn't considered bribery is that we get to define what bribery is.'' As the nation saw in the case of former President Clinton's support for fugitive financier Marc Rich, cases involving huge soft-money campaign donations can look an awful lot like bribery.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that campaign reform laws can go beyond banning bribery to address the appearance of corruption in the political system. Reform laws can extend to what the court has called the ''broader threat from politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.''
McCain-Feingold drastically reduces how big those large contributors can be, so it reduces the degree of compliance they may be able to achieve from politicians who benefit from their generosity.
The American system of campaign financing is so convoluted, with such high stakes, that no reform will ever be perfect. But McCain-Feingold is a significant step forward, and it's to Sen. Stevens' credit that he helped push it along.
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