AUSTIN, Texas -- As I write, the most riveting television drama imaginable is being played out on C-Span, of all places.

The U.S. House of Representatives is debating campaign finance reform, and it's one of those days when all citizens should be political junkies. It doesn't get better than this -- the stakes couldn't be higher, the tension couldn't be thicker, the theater is superb. Passion, drama, comedy, hypocrisy, devious plot devices, splendid villains, noble heroes ... this is just the best. The casting director has a spectacular imagination: Tom DeLay and Dick Armey alternating in the role of Iago -- wow.

Speaker Dennis Hastert himself called the innocuous-sounding Shays-Meehan bill "Armageddon" for the Republican Party. Actually, it's more like "The Perils of Pauline," in which the dastardly villain keeps tying the helpless heroine (in this case, the Shays-Meehan bill) to the railroad tracks again. They've tried to kill this poor bill so many times and in so many ways, it's become slightly ludicrous.

In the 19th century, when politics was a popular pastime, this would have been the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup and the Final Four. It's Washington's Winter Olympics and, boy, is it cool. (Chet Edwards of Texas just called soft money "a cancer on democracy." It's Metaphor City out there. He also said, "Saying money is the same as free speech lends a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'Money talks.'")

As we all know, money talks in Washington to the point where the whole country is cynical, disgusted and just about completely fed up with politics. (Ooooh, a great performance by J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, speaking in favor of the Trojan horse substitute by Dick Armey, which is offered, of course, to kill Shays-Meehan. Hayworth has just accused those who oppose this poison pill of "cynicism," of not really wanting to ban soft money. Now that's cynicism!)

Just to prove the how fouled up the whole system is, the National Association of Broadcasters (big money-givers) is even now trying to kill this bill because it contains a provision that would make TV ads cheaper for politicians to buy. What right does the Congress of the United States have to try to save democracy if it costs the NAB? Perfect.

If Shays-Meehan makes it out of the House alive, it will fix only half the problem -- but in politics, if you can get half a loaf, take it. The bill leaves a nasty loophole that will permit the special interests to make soft-money contributions to state parties for get-out-the-vote efforts and "voter education," also known as political ads. The bill also ups the limit on hard money, given directly to candidates, from $1,000 to $2,000. As David Corn of The Nation notes, "Americans who ante up the maximum amount double their influence, and this is not a demographically diverse group."

Your true reformers on this subject favor public campaign financing, having the citizens pay for elections so that whoever wins owes nobody but the people. Trouble with that is, we don't want to pay for every nuthatch in town to run for public office on the Vegetarian Rights platform or whatever. But separating the wheat from the chaff, candidate-wise (Bob Ney of Ohio has just explained why he is planning to vote for what he considers a very bad proposal: It's awful, and I'm for it.) is not that difficult.

A congressional candidate would have to start by raising X amount (a substantial but not prohibitive sum) in small donations from people who live in his or her district. This shows that the citizen is well thought of by many people who know him and would probably make a decent candidate. After raising that amount, the citizen qualifies for a limited amount of public money to run his campaign. In Arizona, the original public financing bill had part of the pool of public money coming in from a special tax on lobbyists -- a beautiful touch, just artistic, unfortunately the courts wouldn't uphold it. The money now comes from a 10 percent surcharge on civil and criminal fines and a voluntary check-off on state tax returns.

(The House is now in a general spat because the reformers have mentioned several issues on which special interests have triumphed over the public interest -- including gas pipeline safety -- because of heavy campaign contributions. The anti-reformers are indignantly, claiming that their honor has been impugned, and by Harry, their vote is not for sale and anyone who says so is a rat scoundrel.

It's very bad form in legislative circles to insult the other guy -- personal attacks are much frowned on - even if everybody knows the guy is a whore. (Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has just passionately demanded, "Let my people go!")

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.