Love $tory

campaign finance reform AP

The Enron Corp. has played matchmaker in the torrid love affair between the House Of Representatives and campaign finance reform, says CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer in this Against the Grain commentary.


Happy Valentine's Day from the U.S. House of Representatives!

And from Cupid's little helpers - Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow and, of course, that nice Mr. Arthur Andersen.

If not for them, if not for Enron, it's hard to imagine that the House would have sent these campaign reform roses.

But it's going to take more than Cupid to turn this into more than a one-day holiday. It may be a job for Santa Claus, or that other white-haired merry-maker, John McCain.

As astounding and unexpected as the House's good work is, this is not yet the final coming of campaign finance reform and the death of soft money. Because the bill is not identical to the one the Senate passed last April, the Senate has to get back into the act. And for many years, it was the Senate, not the House, which served as the death chamber for all reform.

So now the Senate must either vote to approve the House bill as it is, or send the two bills to a House-Senate negotiating conference. A conference would give the bill's opponents ample opportunity to whack it. And at some point, the Senate will have to overcome a filibuster and the reformers will have to gather 60 votes, not just a simple majority.

And then there's the small matter of the president of the United States. Remember how a bill becomes a law; the president has to sign it, and then pass out nice fountain pens. This president has not clearly indicated what he will do. He hasn't even unclearly indicated. He probably does know yet, but professional Republicans hope he'll kill reform, or "deform" as they call it.

If Congress ultimately passes the reforms, and if the president signs the bill, then the court challenges begin. The central thrust will be that laws that ban soft money, that limit what groups and individuals can spend on campaign activities, limit free speech and are thus unconstitutional. (Catch the irony: the speech in question isn't free, it's paid for and it's expensive.)

The bottom line, Yogi, is that it ain't over 'til it's over.

But the House's action creates a tremendous momentum for reform, momentum that was unimaginable just a few months ago, pre-Enron. (Confession time: this summer, I wrote, "Campaign finance reform was murdered at approximately 5:41 P.M. EST, Thursday, July 12." Wrong, dumby. Mea culpa, mea culpa.)

Will that momentum carry over to the Senate? The Senate killed campaign reform for years. In 1998 and 1999, it did so even after the House passed reforms (of course, the House passed them because it knew they would die in the Senate).

But all that changed in April. The Senate was still woozy from McCain's wild ride in the 2000 elections, and, more importantly, from he dizzy Florida recount. There was a sense that passing reform was both good politics and good government.

It was a sentiment that waned as the year went on. McCain's mystique dimmed. The great metaphysical questions about Florida and the legitimacy of the Bush administration, of everything, were no longer pressing. And there was not, and there still is not, a huge public lust for reform. It's not even close to a top priority in the polls.

So in July, when the House tried to pass the Senate's McCain-Feingold bill, it failed. The bill's sponsors couldn't even get it to the floor for a vote. There was no detectable pulse.

Enron re-jiggered the equation and revived the patient. Once again, campaign finance reform seemed like good politics and good government, at least to 241 members of the House. For the moment.

I believe, or perhaps I hope, that the events of Sept. 11 had much to do with the resurrection of campaign reform and the House's action. When the Senate passed its bill in April, there was an explicit need to protect, even symbolically, the integrity and basic legitimacy of elections. That's why it passed.

I cannot believe that Sept. 11 has not made politicians and officeholders more sober about their duties and more serious about their mission. These renewed higher callings influenced the House. They will not fade soon. We hope.

E-mail your questions and comments to Against the Grain

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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