AFULL SENATE term lasts 2,189 or 2,188 days, depending on leap years. The cost of an average reelection campaign is $3 million. Allow for a few days off -- Sundays, Christmas, their birthdays -- and the average senator has to raise $1,600 a day every working day for six years just to stay in office. That's $100 every waking hour, and if the senator is from a populous state or expects a close fight it may be two, three, even four times that. The emblem of the modern Senate is the tin cup.
Left to itself the problem of raising these enormous sums will only worsen, as it steadily and dramatically has for 10 years now. The cost of office has doubled since the mid-'70s, and is now rising at a rate of 20 percent in each election cycle. John Stennis is the senior member of the Senate; he has watched the place for 40 years. He is hardly the panting reformer; nor has he, over his career, been particularly partisan. Much of his allegiance is to the institution itself. He said on the floor the other day, "the cost of election campaigns and the method of financing them has placed the integrity of the Senate in jeopardy." He is right, and the thoughtful people in both parties know it.
The Democrats, led by Robert Byrd and David Boren, propose to deal with this; they would set spending limits. Because the Supreme Court has said that such limits violate the First Amendment except as a condition for receipt of public funds, the Democrats have also proposed public financing. Because the Republicans, who are better fund-raisers, object that public financing would also, in any number of ways, be unhealthy, the Democrats have moved to reduce its role in their proposal, so that the most it could provide would be 40 percent of a candidate's funds. Now they are said to be ready to reduce it further, to make it only an insurance policy. If you agreed to spending limits and your opponent did also, neither of you would get public money. If you agreed and he did not, you would get public money (according to a formula still to be worked out) only if and to the extent that he exceeded the limit. As before, there would also be a limit on the total any candidate could receive from PACs in an election cycle.
Filibustering Republicans objected to the earlier proposals in part on the grounds that they would put the Senate at the trough. This is a much leaner proposal. The recipient wouldn't trigger the federal funds; his non-abiding opponent would. There is no way to shave the public financing any further and keep the system workable. If a candidate who agrees to the spending limits is not necessarily to be subsidized, he must at least be protected. There are Republicans who say that, while they oppose public financing, they would favor spending limits. This goes about as far as ingenuity can to accommodate them. There are lesser features of the bill that they also dislike, but these are subjects for bargaining. The Democrats are making a fair offer. The Republicans should take it, before the miserable, obsessive race for funds consumes them al