The Senate’s passage of McCain-Feingold was welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made the time right for McFein–including a strategic calculation by the parties that they had reached soft-money parity–but paramount among them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn’t say much for present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.

The fact that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of one “compromise” that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul Wellstone’s amendment to allow states to apply public financing systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups–labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.

But let’s not get carried away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note Bush’s tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money and “bundling” (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political action committees and provisions for free TV time.

The struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process, the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a final round of compromises doubled “hard money” contribution limits for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.

These “poison pills” proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. complained, “When you talk to people I represent about campaign finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns.”

Jackson and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but they’ll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that’s corrupt about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms, fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in ’02. Even if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee, giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond that stretch inevitable court challenges.

Reformers should keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should also understand that the real action will continue to be in the states, where “clean money” bills, which contain the true and only solution–full public financing of campaigns–are proliferating. Such laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts (though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law) and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin–and municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure it.