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The Justice Department's move to open a preliminary probe of President Clinton's fund-raising efforts might have gotten bigger headlines. But the Senate's reluctant decision to take up campaign-finance reform legislation could have a far more lasting impact.

After the Senate's much-trumpeted committee hearings designed to embarrass the White House turned into a public-relations bust for Republicans as well, Chairman Fred Thompson's decision to have the panel ponder reform turns congressional attention where it should have been all along.

The fundamental problem with the American election system is not whether Clinton or Vice President Gore used a White House phone to call donors -- which Republicans still hope to turn into the crime of the century.

The real problem is an out-of-control election system that encourages politicians of both parties to cut ethical and/or legal corners in search of the ever-increasing amounts of money needed to run for office.

Finally, the Senate seems willing to acknowledge that problem by promising to at least consider limiting the potential for abuse. There's still no guarantee that incumbent lawmakers will actually change a system that gives incumbents huge advantages. Some are even threatening a filibuster to stymie meaningful reform.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's vow to take up McCain-Feingold reform legislation is as close as Congress has come, so far, to dealing with the system's structural problems.

The version of the bipartisan bill now about to be considered -- maybe -- already is significantly weaker than a prior edition that included voluntary spending limits to reduce the money chase. Those limits -- anathema to those who think public office should be for sale -- were dropped in a bid to garner more support. It was an unfortunate tradeoff, but the proposal remains better than nothing.

Now the bill would focus primarily on eliminating the unregulated "soft money" that escapes current contribution limits. And it would better regulate the thinly disguised "issue advocacy" and "independent" expenditures that outside groups make on behalf of candidates in order to circumvent existing limits.

With the Thompson committee ready to wrap up its work, the Senate no longer can hide behind the pretense of needing to wait endlessly for the committee's findings before deciding how to clean up such shenanigans, which give special interests all sorts of ways of buying their way into the legislative process.

And it's that system of seeking and donating money -- the exchange of cash for legislative "access" -- that is the problem. It's a system that both parties adroitly exploit.

That's why substantive reform could be far more important than anything likely to come of Thompson's hearings. And it could prove more important than anything likely to come of Attorney General Janet Reno's probes of Clinton's and Gore's White House phone calls, at least based on what's known now.

Whether they did from an office phone what everyone agrees they could have done legally from a phone in their living quarters is, ultimately, of far less import than changing the system that made them go begging for dollars in the first place.

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