Like last year’s freewheeling Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, this week’s debate on the House version of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan bill, provided an all-too-rare display of what an engaged Congress might look like.

Not only did the reform coalition break through the barricades erected by the House Republican coalition to win an unexpectedly wide 240-189 vote, it sparked a debate worthy of what is, after all, supposed to be a deliberative body.

For the most part these days, Congressional debates are defined by both their brevity and their vapid nature. Consider the embarrassingly abbreviated discourse over providing George W. Bush with the authority to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks — not exactly an inconsequential matter — and it is easy to understand why so many Americans doubt whether this Congress is capable of a serious discussion.

During the marathon debate over Shays-Meehan, which stretched through the day Wednesday and into Thursday morning, however, there were flashes of intellect, passion and even humor. Yes, of course, Republican attempts to derail the reform movement by repeatedly attempting to slip “poison-pill” amendments into the carefully blended Shays-Meehan compromise were comically cynical. But they provided an opening for dramatic clashes of honor. One of the most amazing of these came when conservative Republicans — many of them white southerners with dubious track records on issues of racial justice — attempted to attach an amendment that would have lifted restrictions of last-minute attack ads if the messages concerned civil rights issues.

The Republican expressions of concern about for fostering a dialogue about civil rights held little water with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The veteran of the civil rights era, who took to the microphones several times during the day and night of debates, ripped the hypocritical attempts of southern Republicans to present themselves as tribunes of the black freedom struggle. “I did not march across the bridge at Selma on March 7, 1965, and almost lose my life to become part of a political system so corrupt that it pollutes the very idea of what we marched,” a clearly angered Lewis told the hushed House of Representatives.”There is too much money in politics,” Lewis argued. “Political candidates should not be up for sale to the highest bidder. Too many of us spend too much of our time dialing for dollars. We should not be elected this way. This should not be the essence of our democracy.”

Lewis was not alone in pushing the debate beyond the picayune toward broader dialogue about the very character of American democracy. “At issue is the shape of American democracy; at issue also is the shape of our political parties. There is a question of balance of power between the parties, but shape matters too. Do we want our parties dependent on the big and powerful or the individual citizen?” declared Iowan Jim Leach, one of the last of the chamber’s genuine old-school Republican moderates. “The system needs reform; so do the parties. In a new-fangled world, what is needed is old-fashioned politics, old-fashioned political parties, old-fashioned people-oriented representation.”

The debate actually featured verbal wrestling matches over core principles of “old-fashioned” politics and governance, as when California Republican David Dreier, one of the chambers most consistent foes of reform, began quoting from James Madison and other framers of the Constitution to defend the role of special-interest groups in American politics. “In Federalist No. 10, James Madison talked about political faction, how the opportunity for people to come together and demonstrate their interests is something that is a fact of life. In fact, he said in Federalist No. 10, ‘Faction is to governing like air is to fire,'” Dreier asserted.

Those remarks brought Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan to the floor to deliver what may have been the most effective of his many defenses of the bill he and Connecticut Republican Chris Shays guided through the House. To Dreier’s attempt to claim the favor of the founders for his position, Meehan replied, “Mr. Chairman, if James Madison could see the $4 million in unregulated soft money that went from Enron to both political parties, if James Madison could see that 70 percent of the soft money from Enron since 1995 went to both political parties, if James Madison could see the $1.7 million in the last election cycle, he would be rolling over in his grave.”

Meehan was a tireless performer across almost 16 hours of debate, arguing philosophically and strategically. As one point, he took to the microphones to bluntly explain why the legislation — so long opposed by Republican leaders, including George W. Bush — might actually become law. Following House passage and what backers hope will be quick action by the Senate to essentially renew its support of McCain-Feingold, Meehan said, “Then we are going to send it over to the President, and the President has made it very clear to the Republican leadership and anyone else in this House, ‘do not count on me to veto this bill.’ Why is it the President made it clear? Because this President knows what we all know, that there is a cloud over the Capitol and the White House because of this Enron scandal, and the American people are demanding that that cloud be removed by removing this soft money system that has had such a corrupting influence on the decisions that we make day in and day out, making good people do bad things. They want this removed and the President wants this removed, I am sure. I am sure that is why he will sign this bill.”

But can a bill that George W. Bush would sign represent real reform?

Some long-time reformers were frank about the fact that, in the words of Iowa’s Leach, Shays-Meehan “is too little, too late, too compromised.” Said California Democrat Pete Stark, “In my opinion, we should do away with our private campaign financing system altogether and publicly fund political campaigns. This would level the playing field so that anyone could participate in the political process.” While he admitted that “the Shays-Meehan bill doesn’t go that far,” Stark added: “This bill has several important provisions to improve our campaign finance laws: it bans soft money from national parties; it reins in campaign advertisements which claim to be ‘issue advocacy’ ads; it enhances disclosure of political expenses; and it provides the Federal Election Commission with stronger tools to enforce campaign finance laws. By passing this bill today, we as leaders can finally recognize what the American public has known for years: there is too much money in politics.”

Stark’s realistic remarks were in marked contrast to the over-the-top pronouncements of Shays-Meehan backers like Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., who identified Shays-Meehan as “a valentine for the America people” and declared, “This beautiful city in which we serve 200 years ago was built on a swamp and a swamp it is again today, a swamp of special interest money. Today we have the opportunity to drain that swamp.”

If some members could not quite control their flights of rhetorical fancy, others used humor to return the debate to the basic point that any move that removes special-interest money from politics is a move in the right direction. “Did my colleagues hear the story about the lobbyist who gave a million dollars to a political party in soft money donations and demanded absolutely nothing in return?” asked Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett. “Well, neither has anyone else.”