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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Suddenly the season for political reform?

In Washington, D.C., it's Enron. Here at the state Capitol, it's Marshall Ige, Andy Mirikitani and some others. In both places, a pall of scandal is giving new legs to reform legislation that a few weeks ago appeared to be going nowhere.

The U.S. House is scheduled to vote tomorrow on campaign finance reform, and state lawmakers are moving tough-minded reform and accountability bills here at home.

Readers should pay attention to efforts to derail the Shays-Meehan bill, the companion measure to the McCain-Feingold bill passed last year by the Senate, which would curtail so-called "soft money": that is, the half-billion dollars or so in contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that isn't supposed to be used in individual campaigns — but which the parties and incumbents have learned to use to benefit individual candidates.

Shays-Meehan suddenly has a decent chance of passage in part because the White House has opted to stand aloof from the debate. You can bet President Bush would have preferred to take a stand similar to that of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who likens the bill to Armageddon for Republicans, jeopardizing their majority in the House.

Bush is silent at the moment, however, because he's working hard to keep the scandal involving the collapse of Enron, late the titan of soft-money contribution, away from the White House door.

Representatives on both sides of the aisle, genuinely shocked by the Enron affair, appear to be working up the courage to pass Shays-Meehan. But expect skullduggery. Hastert will give lawmakers a chance to vote instead for sham reform in a substitute bill (Ney-Wynn). He also intends, if he's allowed, to lard Shays-Meehan with so-called "poison pill" amendments that would send it into House-Senate conference, where it could be argued to death.

This is an opportune time for House members, including Hawai'i's Patsy Mink and Neil Abercrombie, to display courage in the public interest. Both say they favor campaign reform in principle. But Shays-Meehan backers regard Mink and Abercrombie as luke-warm or even opposed to soft- money reform. The proof will be in their performance.

Meanwhile in Honolulu, lawmakers seem genuinely disposed to passing several items that might put some distance between them and some of their less ethical, now departed, colleagues. Surprisingly, both houses are advancing legislation that would ban political contributions from corporations, labor unions and government contractors.

Such contributions are already banned in federal campaigns. "The thinking," writes Lynda Arakawa of The Advertiser's Capitol Bureau, "is that these donations create at least the perception that politicians become indebted to big business and labor, or steer government contracts to major contributors."

The more tempting, if cynical, view is that a wide swath of Hawai'i citizens believe the process is rife with corruption. Lawmakers would go a long way toward cleaning up their image by passing this legislation.