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The best comment I heard about what the Senate did last week on campaign finance reform came from my friend David Rogers of The Wall Street Journal. As we watched from the press gallery on Tuesday afternoon, senators and staff members were scurrying around the Senate floor, the groups forming and reforming like amoebas in heat.

Seemingly apropos of nothing, Rogers said, "I saw a great bumper strip on the way to work this morning. It read: 'Jesus Is Coming. Look Busy.' "

Well, Tuesday was not Judgment Day, but in the moments before the first two roll calls of the year on the supposedly serious effort to remove the stench left by the reckless money-grubbing of the 1996 election, senators were buzzing like bees.

Within minutes, it was clear that the legislation was going nowhere this year. After two procedural roll calls failed to produce the 60 votes needed to end debate on the main reform bill (despised by Republicans) or Majority Leader Trent Lott's amendment restricting labor union political activities (equally despised by Democrats), Lott happily switched the Senate's attention to another subject.

At breakfast that morning, Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, a pro-reform Republican, had pointed out that for two decades, both the House and Senate have been playing charades with this issue, while the price of politics has skyrocketed. Most often, Shays noted, the minority party has acted as the ardent reformer, counting on the party with more votes to find a way to prevent anything from happening.

The Democrats are playing that role this year, not only because they are the minority, but because their leaders, President Clinton and Vice President Gore, have been pounded for their use of the White House to extract money from some notably unsavory characters.

No one questions the sincerity of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or his Republican partner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But when all 45 Democratic senators united behind the McCain-Feingold bill, at the behest of Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, their ranks included many whose private judgment about the bill is no more favorable than Lott's. They made the gesture in the confident belief that Lott and the Republicans would never allow the bill to become law.

The anger I would expect to feel at such shenanigans is mitigated by the realization that the McCain-Feingold bill is deeply flawed. When they introduced the original version in September 1995, it was a robust measure. In addition to banning "soft money," the conduit for the six-figure gifts to the political parties that led to the worst of the 1996 excesses, the bill would have set voluntary spending limits for congressional candidates, rewarding those who accepted them with reduced-cost television and mailing rates.

But as they scrambled for votes, McCain and Feingold were forced to jettison one piece after another, leaving it a lot less comprehensive than the original.

The lesson of this latest legislative fiasco, I think, is that Congress will not cure what ails the campaign finance system. In a similar impasse a decade ago, when Congress balked at closing unneeded military bases, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas pushed through a proposal creating a blue-ribbon commission to recommend a list of closures.

A similar strategy, with a commission led by reform-minded former members of Congress, is the best hope for breaking the partisan gridlock on campaign finance. Rep. Rick White, a Republican from Washington, has 86 co-sponsors -- more Democrats than Republicans -- for such a plan. It deserves to be brought to a vote.

Washington Post Writers Group

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