THE ALUMNI are worried that dear old Alma Mater is getting a bad name.

It's the Congress of the United States we're talking about, not Old Siwash or Winsockie or Euphoria State. Interviews with more than a score of former representatives and senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, show a bad case of anxiety about the "rep" that Congress has these days.

A Republican, former representative William H. Hudnut III, now mayor of Indianapolis, said the public has the impression that Congress "is a rudderless ship, that its members are squabbling all the time, and that they are afraid to bite any bullets or make any hard choices."

A Democrat, former Illinois representative Abner J. Mikva, now a federal circuit court judge in Washington, pointed to the decline in reelection margins and the passage of term-limitation measures last November and said of his former colleagues: "If they can't read that handwriting on the wall, they need eyeglasses for sure."

That refrain is voiced all across the political spectrum, from liberals like Adlai E. Stevenson III, John C. Culver and Gary Hart to conservatives like John J. Rhodes, Melvin R. Laird and James T. Broyhill.

Former Senate Republican leader Howard H. Baker Jr., of Tennessee, whose father, mother and father-in-law all served in Congress before him, summed up the general sentiment by saying, "I've seen Congress's reputation go up and down for many, many years. But I've never seen it lower than it is now. I think there will be a massive wave of anti-incumbent sentiment unless the problem is addressed."

The definition of "the problem" varies from person to person. And when the old grads are asked what practical steps Congress could take to improve its standing with the public, they offer a variety of suggestions. But in this unscientific sampling of notable alumni, the single action most often mentioned is to change the way the campaigns for Congress are financed.

"I cannot say how important I think it is," said former representative Dick Bolling, who believes that financing lies at the heart of most of Congress's other problems. Agreeing, former senator Thomas Eagleton said, "I don't care what ethics bills you pass, if you don't do anything about campaign-spending reform, you haven't done anything at all."

Bolling and Eagleton are both liberal Democrats from Missouri. But this is no longer just a liberal lament. Former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, the chairman of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns, said, "There's far too much emphasis on money and far too much time spent collecting it. It's the most corrupting thing I see on the congressional scene."

Laxalt said, "The problem is so bad we ought to start thinking about federal financing" of House and Senate campaigns. "It was anathema to me," as it has been to most conservatives, he said, "but in my experience with the {Reagan} presidential campaigns, it worked, and it was like a breath of fresh air . . . . A lot of us who retired {from Congress} did so because we just didn't have the stomach to go out and hustle for money the way you have to do now."

Hudnut, also an opponent of public financing in his House days, agrees with Laxalt now -- and also favors caps on campaign spending, a provision that congressional Republicans and President Bush have adamantly opposed. "It's obscene how money is driving politics," Hudnut exclaimed.

Former House speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill of Massachusetts also is angry about former colleagues who "pile up a million or more bucks" in campaign funds -- and then dare anyone to challenge them. "It's good for people to have a challenger, to have to come home and explain their records," O'Neill said. "Otherwise, they get arrogant, they go international, they forget the people at home."

It's not just the amount of money enveloping Congress that concerns these alumni; many also object to the kind of campaigns being waged. "The negative campaigning and the smears," exclaimed former senator Abraham A. Ribicoff (D) of Connecticut. "It's no wonder they have so little respect for Congress when people see the candidates for Congress stooping to these tactics. The attitude is simple disgust."

Two prominent Republican alumni -- former senator Bill Brock of Tennessee and former representative Melvin R. Laird of Wisconsin -- argue that the best way to insulate Congress from special-interest PAC (political-action committee) money is to route all such campaign funds through the parties. Laird argues that most organized giving today is "really to buy access" to the lawmakers. Brock, a former national GOP chairman, agrees that allowing the PACS to contribute only to the parties would reduce the access game -- and strengthen party discipline. Tighter party control is necessary if Congress is to tackle the tough problems, several alums say. "When I was in Congress, we had a lot of party discipline," former New Hampshire representative Perkins Bass (R) said. "There's no discipline I can see today." Pointing to the rank-and-file House rebellion last autumn against the budget agreement endorsed by leaders of both parties, Bass said, "Congress can't take on the entitlements or the other tough budget choices, because there's no discipline."

On the opposite coast, Washington Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard (R), who served for 12 years in the House, remarked that "in Congress today, everyone runs for office as a political entity of his own. Without a strong party connection, there's no coherent philosophy for them to connect to; it's everyone for himself."

Others who agree that Congress needs more discipline think it has to come from inside the institution. Former House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California said, "The reforms that came in after the 1974 election spread out the power so much in Congress that it's very difficult for the leadership to lead. It's frustrated efforts at leadership and actually encouraged them to avoid responsibility."

Brock and Stevenson, Ribicoff and former senator James R. Pearson (R) of Kansas were partners in Senate reform efforts, several years apart. Today they still think internal changes clarifying lines of responsibility and reclaiming the leaders' and committee chairmen's vanished clout would enable Congress to do its job better. Congress, said Stevenson, "is suffering from an excess of democracy." Brock said, "They have to restore the authority of committee chairmen and get some hierarchical structure." Two respected alumni argue that Congress might be more respected if its members just buckled down and worked harder at their jobs. "More work by individual senators is needed, and less reliance on staff," said former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (D) of Montana. "Congress should not be taking all of August off each year. And it ought to work five days a week to keep the legislation from piling up."

Former senator Margaret Chase Smith (R) of Maine, who prided herself on not missing a roll-call vote, said, "Congress can't do its work with the amount of absenteeism there is. The public thinks they think more about holidays and salaries than they doing about passing legislation."

But Howard Baker takes exactly the opposite view. "They ought to reduce sessions to six months a year, so they have time to know what their constituents are thinking. Congress is not acting in the role the Constitution prescribes for it. It is meant to be essentially a big national board of directors, making broad policy, but increasingly it's becoming an elected bureaucracy with its fingers into everything."

However long the sessions or the workdays, several alumni say Congress has to organize its time better. Slashing staff, cutting the number of committees and subcommittees -- and thereby reducing the schedule conflicts for individual members -- were suggested by many of those interviewed. Former senator Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland said, "Modern times have imposed a massive workload on Congress and it requires discipline. Not new rules, but enforcing the rules they've got would speed up things enormously."

Summarizing suggestions made by several others, former senator Daniel J. Evans (R) of Washington, who opted out after only one term, called for a two-year budget cycle, with the first year setting spending priorities and the second focusing on oversight of how the funds are being spent. Evans also favored "slashing severely" at the committee and staff undergrowth and scheduling significant floor debates for late afternoon and early evening hours to increase senatorial attendance. "If you had real debate," he said, "it would help educate the public on the issues, but we have virtually none of that now." It has struck many of the alumni that one reason for Congress's bad reputation is that so many members bad-mouth Congress in their own reelection campaigns. "I think members of Congress are basically solid and sound," said former senator Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont. "But every two years, they spend all their time telling the public what boobs their colleagues are at best, and what crooks at worst. No wonder the public believes it."

Others, however, say the character problem is not just a campaign myth -- and must be addressed before Congress' reputation can improve.

"When I started," said John Rhodes of Arizona, the former House minority leader, "we had a feeling we had to be concerned about the country. But now I think there are more and more members who are primarily concerned about their own reelection. We used to say, 'You only have one political death, but you can choose when to use it.' They don't want to risk {anything} at all."

Former senator Gary Hart (D) of Colorado also draws a sharp contrast between the older members who were around when he came in 1974 and the younger ones who entered in the 1980s. "It has gone down in terms of caliber, breadth of vision and quality," he said. "It's going to be hard to get back to the broad-gauge, big-picture, constitutionalist type of senator; they don't run in the kind of election campaigns we have today."

Former senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, a maverick who prided himself on his low-cost campaigns, is critical of the focus on reelection. "Being a senator is such a marvelous job," he said, "they do whatever they can to hold onto it. It becomes a priority for them, and their families, and their staffs, and even their colleagues pressure them, because their chairmanships depend on their party staying in control. And once the No. 1 objective becomes being reelected, you can rationalize all sorts of things . . . ." If reelection pressures are the problem, is term-limitation the answer? Some alumni say yes. Conservatives Broyhill and Hudnut are for the idea, and so is liberal former representative Shirley Chisholm (D) of New York. "There's anger and a lack of trust I've not seen before," she said, describing her sense of the public attitude toward Congress. "We need new blood -- a new transfusion. Too many of them have Potomac fever and forgot how they got there."

But even those who voluntarily cut short their own congressional careers tend to reject the idea of limiting tenure by law. "When you decrease the tenure," said Rhodes, "the influence of unelected staff members goes up." Laird calls term limits "a repudiation of our whole philosophy of representative government." Former representative James R. Jones (D), whose home state of Oklahoma has passed term-limits for the legislature, calls them "crazy," but adds, "The only way to avoid them is for members of Congress to start acting as if the Constitution already included a limit on terms. If they would show more courage and candor, it would do wonders."

Finally, some alumni suggest that the public itself may have to take responsibility for Congress and its flaws. "From my perspective," said John Culver, "term-limitation is the latest manifestation of public irresponsibility. Many people don't vote. Most of those who do vote don't want to vote against their own congressman. So they look on term-limitations as a way of changing people without the bother -- or the responsibility -- of voting them out."

Culver said he agreed that today's Congress -- "made up of wonderfully attractive people" -- seems "more preoccupied with reelection than the old Congresses made up of people who were, frankly, less than distinguished." But, he said, "an informed electorate is the cornerstone of a democracy, and that's the responsibility of the people, not of the members of Congress. In the end, the public is going to get what it demands. This Congress is about what the people deserve -- maybe a little better."

David Broder is a Washington Post reporter and columnist.