BY ANYONE'S reckoning, 1988 should be the year of ethics. The record of the past few years has been a national disgrace -- a time of corruption and scandal in Washington.

It's been a time when news headlines reported serious allegations of unethical or illegal conduct about 110 Reagan administration officials. It's been a time when our nation's chief law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Edwin Meese, faced repeated independent-counsel inquiries and General Accounting Office findings that he failed to comply with the Ethics in Government Act. It's been a time, to put it simply, when the Reagan administration has practiced an "anything goes" approach to ethics.

Congress is facing an ethics crisis, too, but it isn't getting the same attention. The problem there is money -- PAC contributions, honoraria fees and the whole system for financing congressional elections. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has explained the system of instutionalized corruption this way: "We are the only human beings in the world who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers on important matters and not be affected by it."

Congress faces a crossroads on ethics next week, when S2, the Senatorial Election Campaign Act, will be debated on the Senate floor. S2, sponsored by 52 senators, would help end the money chase in Congress by limiting PAC contributions and creating a system of spending limits and public financing for Senate races. It's a measure of the ethical crisis on Capitol Hill that this bill faces a filibuster designed to prevent the Senate from even voting on the issue.

This isn't a new fight. When I first went to work for Common Cause as a lobbyist in 1971, I was assigned two issues to work on -- campaign-finance reform and legislation to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. I stopped working on the latter in 1975. A couple of years ago, I told a member of Congress I had been working on congressional campaign-finance reform legislation for 15 years. His response: "You're not doing too well, Fred, are you?"

I know to many I sound like a broken record after 17 years of doing battle on this issue. Friends wonder why I'm still at it. Foes delight in blaming the present campaign-finance disaster in Congress on the reforms that we in Common Cause helped enact in 1974. Well, I don't buy that. When people point to the reforms of 1974 as the reason for the campaign-finance problems in Congress today, they are rewriting history. In fact, today's corrupt system exists because of too little -- not too much -- reform in the 1970s.

To appreciate what passage of S2 could mean, look at one area of our national politics that's remarkably free of corruption today compared with the past -- our presidential-election campaigns. That's largely because of the 1974 reforms, which provided a revolutionary system of public financing for presidential campaigns.

The presidential campaign-financing system has cleaned up what used to be a corrupt system. Of course, the system is not perfect; no system is. But one has only to take a short refresher course on what it was like before this law was enacted to fully understand what this law has accomplished.

Awalk through history, for example, recalls news stories about the $2-million pledge by the milk producers to President Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign -- and its link in the public's mind to the subsequent increase in milk price supports. And we remember that in 1972, just 153 individuals accounted for $20 million in contributions to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

In 1972, embassies were for sale. The future ambassador to Great Britain contributed $254,000; the future ambassador to Luxembourg, $300,000; the future ambassador to France, $303,000.

We remember, too, the letter from liberal "fat cat" Stewart Mott to Vice President Hubert Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign saying, "If we become 'turned-on' and enthusiastic towards your candidacy, we have the capacity to give $1 million or more to your campaign -- and raise twice or three times that amount. But we will each make our own individual judgments on the basis of how you answer our several questions and how you conduct your campaign in the coming weeks."

These outrages ended after the 1974 reforms. Reviewing the post-1974 record, a commission chaired by Melvin Laird, secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, and Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, concluded in 1985: "Public financing of presidential elections has clearly proved its worth in opening up the process, reducing undue influence of individuals and groups and virtually ending corruption in presidential election finance."

There's a simpler way to understand what this new system has meant to the office of the presidency. It's the fact that the corrupting effect of campaign money on presidential decisions is now a non-story.

The dirty money that was taken out of presidential elections in 1974 now pollutes Congress. Under our present congressional campaign-finance system, special interest PACs give members of Congress millions of dollars to buy access, influence and results.

Under this system, the average winning Senate candidate in 1986 spent $3 million to get elected -- a 500 percent increase over 10 years ago. The massive sums being spent for campaigns increasingly are putting public office beyond the reach of those who are unable or unwilling to raise the vast amounts required or those who are not personally wealthy. The explosion in campaign spending is changing the very nature of elective office itself, forcing candidates to spend more and more time raising campaign funds at the expense of their congressional responsibilities.

S2, modeled after the presidential campaign-finance system, would cure these problems for the Senate as the 1974 reforms did for the presidency. Opponents don't have the votes to beat this bill on the merits, so they have been conducting a filibuster to block Senate action. They argue that the legislation will protect incumbents, misuse taxpayer money and fail to solve the PAC problem. But their arguments just don't stand up to public scrutiny, as nearly 300 newspapers throughout the country have pointed out in editorials supporting S2. And the real question facing Senate opponents today is just how long are they prepared to hold Congress and the country hostage to a fundamentally corrupt campaign-finance system.

In all my years of working on this issue, the one day that stands out most in my mind is Aug. 6, 1974. The Senate had already passed a landmark bill to create a system of both spending limits and public financing for presidential and congressional campaigns. The House Administration Committee had reported a bill that included public financing for presidential races -- but not for Congress. On that day, just outside the House chamber, a tentative agreement was reached with key members of the House that would have allowed passage of congressional public financing when the bill came to the floor.

The agreement unraveled. Two days later the House voted down congressional public financing by a vote of 228 to 187, prior to passing legislation to create the presidential system. A few hours later, the man who started it all, President Nixon, resigned from office.

It was that failure on Aug. 8, 1974 that set in motion the two-track system we now have for financing our federal elections. One system for the presidency, "virtually ending corruption," and the other for Congress, institutionalizing corruption.

I have often thought over the years back to that August -- the day we almost won congressional public financing. If the tentative deal had held for 48 hours, the United States Congress would be a far different, and far better, institution today.

Fred Wertheimer is president of Common Cause.