"BLOATED." "Spiraling." "Scandalous." These are some of the adjectives people use to describe the level of political spending in the United States, especially if they are trying to make a case for limiting the money candidates may spend on congressional elections.

The adjectives have fueled political rhetoric every election year for a decade. They no doubt will be heard again this fall. But before we get swept away, let us ask two questions. High compared to what? And what does campaign spending buy?

Spending in U.S. congressional elections has been going up about half again as quickly as the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Candidates for the House and Senate spent about $195 million in 1978 and $342 million in 1982, a rise of 75 percent. The CPI went up less than 50 percent over the same period.

But campaign spending in the United States is not high compared to other democratic countries. Few countries disclose campaign expenditures as fully as the United States, but some provide enough information to make worthwhile comparisons. According to an article by Howard Penniman in Public Opinion magazine, campaign spending in the United States is only about average when the numbers are compared carefully.

In his calculations of what is spent in other countries, Penniman included outlays by political parties as well as candidates. He figured that U.S. federal elections cost $3.25 per eligible voter in 1980 ($1.51 for congressional elections and another $1.75 for the presidential); the 1980 Canadian election cost $1.43; the 1983 West German election $3.20; the 1981 Irish election $3.93; the 1977 Israeli election $4.34, and the 1983 Venezuelan election a remarkable $26 per eligible voter.

Moreover, the foreign figures do not include spending by interest groups, such as labor unions and corporations, while the U.S. figures do. The U.S. figures covered separate presidential and congressional elections while in the foreign countries the equivalent elections are combined. The United States has long primary and general election campaigns while most foreign countries have no primaries and short general election campaigns. And each of the above foreign countries give free radio and television time to political parties, the value of which is not included in the sums. (Those countries do, however, spend heavily on advertising of other kinds.)

American politics differs from the politics of most democratic countries in still other ways. There are about half a million elected officials in the United States. "No country can approach the United States in the frequency and variety of elections," says British political scientist Ivor Crewe. And American voters tend to pay much more attention to individual candidates, and less to party labels, than voters abroad.

All of these differences should result in more campaign spending in this country than elsewhere. But the numbers show this not to be so.

What can the average U.S. congressional candidate buy for his or her money? In 1982, the 767 major party House candidates on November general election ballots spent an average of $228,000 on their primary and general election campaigns. The 23 challengers who beat incumbents spent an average of about $300,000. That may sound like a lot but it does not buy much political communication.

This year, for example, one House challenger from suburban Portland, Ore., is putting about $160,000 of a $250,000 campaign budget into television. That means that the typical household will see about 12 of her commericals during the campaign.

Other forms of communication are not cheap either. A single mass mailing in a congressional district, much of which is wasted on non-voters, costs about $30,000. Candidates who decide to personalize their mail and avoid waste may have to spend $200,000 for a well designed survey, mail and telephone package that can reach likely voters three or four times in a campaign, without counting other campaign costs.

Is this too much to spend on politics? A few TV exposures or mailings do not let most challengers make much of a case against House incumbents. Incumbents spend $1.2 million every two years to run their congressional offices, not counting the value of free postage or subsidized radio and television production. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the average House incumbent's name was recognized by 92 percent of the voters in his or her district in 1980. The average recognition rate for challengers that same year was only 54 percent.

The overall figures do not, in other words, make the case for spending limits.

What, then, fuels the desire for legal caps? Some of it is distaste for the and supposed lack of content of TV advertising. But average local television rates have not been going up faster than the consumer price index, and the rate per thousand of people reached is still cheaper than most other communication forms. More importantly, studies show that advertising does a better job of informing voters of the issues than television news.

There is also a more basic reason offered for spending limits. Incumbents and rich or famous people do have a tremendous fund-raising advantage over normal challengers and open-seat candidates. Therefore, some see spending limits as one way to encourage competitive elections. But this argument mistakes what challengers and open-seat candidates need to be competitive. Their problem is not financial equality -- many outspent candidates win -- but lack of early seed money and name recognition. That is why studies repeatedly have shown that spending limits generally would help incumbents and other well-known public figures over the ordinary challenger or open-seat candidate.

Public campaign subsidies would help challengers, but not if they come along with spending limits. One good approach is the 100 per cent tax credit for small individual contributors sponsored by Reps. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.) and and Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.). Another would be to let candidates raise their first $100,000 or so of seed money in $25,000 chunks from individuals, with swift disclosure.

But limits on what individual congressional candidates can spend respond to the wrong problem, and can be easily evaded. What the country needs is not another campaign finance limit, but more campaign finance.