When the history of the 105th Congress is written, it will likely record that an ambitious onetime actor, Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), and a small group of moderate GOP senators preserved the integrity of their party and the institution in which they serve. But just barely, and just before the public's contempt for the money-politics scandal engulfing Washington turned to complete revulsion--and perhaps a dangerous backlash. Under heavy pressure from the moderates, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), reversed position. He will now allow Thompson to conduct a broad probe of both illegal and improper campaign fund-raising practices, including "soft" money contributions. This provides a final opportunity for politicians to redeem themselves in the eyes of the people. Both Democrats and Republicans should take it.
But exposing wrongdoing must be followed by serious reform. What is most egregious about the current campaign-finance system is not what is illegal, but rather what is legal. The ability to raise unlimited amounts of money from parties with particular agendas--ostensibly for party-building activities but mostly for supporting candidates--has turned the White House and Congress into a favor-selling bazaar. Access is the key resource to be sold--access to the President, to Democratic and Republican party leaders, and to top committee chairmen in the House and Senate who write the laws and regulations governing America. Monied interests trump voters in this game. And both legislators and Presidents must spend much of their day currying favor with possible contributors instead of attending to the nation's business.
This has got to stop once and for all. Polls show that the public holds both Republicans and Democrats responsible for playing this corrupting campaign-finance game. Thompson's investigation is bound to confirm this view. The excesses of the 1996 election are the best opportunity to clean up the electoral system--and bring back voters who have increasingly boycotted it. The first step is a full and fair hearing of what happened in the past election. The next step must be action and campaign-finance reform.