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Campaign finance reform needs to be looked at soon

Sen. Robert Byrd knows the Constitution inside and out. In Washington, he is probably the staunchest defender of the Constitution. And so it is rare that you will find him wanting to amend the document.

But West Virginia's senior senator has proposed a constitutional amendment that would set limits on contributions and spending in federal elections. The measure would also allow states to set similar restrictions on state and local races.

"The average cost to win a Senate race (in 2000) was more than $7 million," said Byrd this week. "Those figures are outrageous."

So outrageous, in fact, that many good people are discouraged from running and those who are in office spend much of their time raising money for the next election.

Byrd has proposed a constitutional amendment because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that limits on campaign expenditures are an infringement on a candidate's free speech. One way around that ruling is to change the Constitution.

It's an interesting gesture on Byrd's part, but it probably won't go anywhere. First, a constitutional amendment requires the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate. That alone would be difficult to achieve because incumbents like the system the way it is and don't want to change it.

If it were approved by Congress, the amendment would have to pass muster with three-fourths of the state legislatures over a seven-year period.

That's just too long. Campaign finance reform is something that needs to be addressed before the next presidential election.

There is still a chance for the McCain-Feingold bill, which would ban soft money donations to the parties and limit advertising by third-party groups.

But bipartisan support for the bill is slipping. Some lawmakers are now throwing their support to a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

Hagel's bill would allow soft money, but there would be restrictions on the amount that individuals and groups could contribute. If such a cap were challenged in court, it would be set aside.

It's all a big mess, but one thing is certain: Meaningful and sweeping campaign finance reform is probably not in the cards anytime soon. Too many people in Washington benefit from the system, and they're not going to change it.

-- Exponent Editorial Board

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