BACK IN THE 1970s, Democrats thought it would be a terrific idea to push through reforms governing the raising and spending of campaign cash.
With their eyes on the boxcar sums Richard Nixon's cohorts had raised in his behalf, the reformers started acting like fraternity guys who get heavily into the sauce, put lampshades on their heads, and set about fulfilling their destiny to be the life of the party.
Well, the Democrats are still suffering from the hangover -- it may prove more painful in November than it is now -- and they are thinking about new reforms to reform the old reforms, which would almost surely lead to another hangover.
Their original idea was to impose limits on the amounts individual contributors and committees could give to campaigns. The "good guys" were going to reduce the influence of money in politics and eliminate big money men like Stewart Mott and Clement Stone and the contributors Maurice Stans tapped for Nixon.
The Democrats, though, acted as if they believed both their reputation as the party of the little guy and the misguided notion that only fat-cat Republicans depended on big contributions. In fact, since at least as early as 1964, the Republicans had been building a broad base of small contributors and effective direct-mail lists. The Democrats, the majority party in control of Congress, on the other hand, have relied much more on large contributors.
After the Watergate disaster and the ensuing "reforms," the Republicans continued to aggressively broaden their base of contributors. But the Democrats, it turned out, had reformed their own major sources of funding out of business, and they had done nothing to match the Republicans' grass- roots efforts. They are now light-years behind the GOP in raising money.
This November's congressional elections will be a test of the Republicans' monetary advantage, which is now a staggering 10 to 1 over the Democrats in contributions to the two national party committees and to the Republican and Democratic House and Senate campaign committees. The number of House seats the Republicans lose in November will be regarded as a test of Reaganomics, but it also will be a measure of the power of the GOP's money.
Historical precedent and most statistical analyses of the opinon polls indicate that the Republicans should lose 40 or more seats. Political pros, however, generally peg the turnover in the 15- to 20-seat range. A major wild card in the deck is the Republicans' money.
"We've got 20 or 25 candidates out there who would have a good shot if we could get $25,000 to each of them," says Marty Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Six or seven of them would probably make it" if they got that cash, Franks continues.
But his committee doesn't have it to give them.
The committee will only be able to make such contributions to about 80 Democratic candidates in targeted house races, Franks says, adding: "When anyone says we'll pick up 25 or more (seats in November), I make it 15 or 20," because of the money shortage.
His committee will raise and spend only about $6 million to $7 million in the 1981-82 election cycle. The Republican National Congressional Committee, by comparison, expects to raise and spend about $67 million, possibly more, over the same period.
Actually, for all the efficiency of the Republican committees, total spending by the two major parties on the House and Senate races this year should be about equal, because individual Democratic candidates have always been able to raise money on their own, independent of the party.
In 1980, Democratic candidates actually outspent Republicans by $3 million. But the difference in 1982 may be the Republicans' ability to pour lots of extra dough into the 80 swing districts both parties have targeted.
A survey in the latest Baron Report outlines the Republican advantage in House races since 1974 in which the incumbent party lost the seat to the other party. In 1974 the Democrats reported average expenditures of $98,000 in each of those races, the Republicans averaged $99,000. In 1980, however, the Democrats spent an average of $188,000 in those contests, but the Republican average was $302,000.
Whatever money's impact, it's not likely to diminish in our lifetime. Congressional Quarterly estimates that campaign expenditures for all races in 1964 totaled about $200 million. By 1980 this figure had more than quadrupled, to $900 million. In constant dollars, total spending had more than doubled, and the boom goes on.
The Federal Election Commission reported about $240 million spent in 1979-80 on House and Senate races; estimates for those races this year run as high as $325 million.
In the first 15 months of the 1979-80 election cycle, the prelude to a presidential election, political action committees raised $71.6 million; in the equivalent period of the 1981-82 cycle, without the attraction of a presidential contest, the figure is $109 million. Through the miracle of direct mail, individual constributions are expected to grow by the same proportion.
There are a lot more people willing to give a lot more money, the lubricant of the political system, than anyone realized a few years ago. Modern fund-raising techniques give the money men an efficient means of prospecting for that oil and a drill long enough to reach it.
Heretofore, direct mail has worked best with fringe and intense single-interest groups -- George Wallace supporters, anti- abortionists, gun control opponents, environmentalists. But now, in the words of one fund raiser, direct mail is getting to more and more moderates, people "on the American Express lists."
So, the reformers traded in Mott and Stone for NCPAC, PROPAC, the realtors' and car dealers' PACs, the environmentalists' and the pro and antiabortionists' PACs. The big contributors are replaced by the big money raisers, the like-minded groups that can raise big totals in small bites from a lot of people.
The reformers conclude that the reforms have left politicians and the political system, if anything, more than ever at the mercy of the big-money interests. They've also discovered that elective politics is more than ever the province of wealthy candidates who can put hundreds of thousands of dollars -- or millions -- of their own money into their campaigns.
Most reformers now favor federal funding of congressional races, which has not fared well on Capitol Hill in the past, and higher limits on individual contributions to each campaign -- $5,000 instead of the current $1,000. And, of course, most want to lower the cost of television advertising and mailing.
One student of campaign finance, Michael Malbin of the American Enterprise Institute, proposes raising the individual limit to $25,000, with full disclosure, so a Mott or Stone could give worthy candidates early "seed" money.
But this Congress shows no sign of entertaining new reform measures. For incumbent members, particularly, the new flood of cash seems to have dulled the hangover. They are not ready yet to uncork the Old Panthersweat, put on the lampshade and start jazzing up the party again.