THE COST of a House seat rose by more than 10 percent in the last election cycle. The average winner spent nearly $360,000 in 1987-88 and, according to preliminary data, about $400,000 in 1989-90. Yet according to the same reports of receipts and expenditures, as of Nov. 26 most members were unfazed. The excess of the present system is such that well over 200 members were given so much money they had more than they could spend. Their cash on hand went up in the course of the campaign; they made money running for office even as the price of office rose.

The surpluses carry over to the next election, where they will be used to discourage some challengers and inundate the rest. (Members elected before 1980 also retain the right to convert surplus funds to taxable personal income if they retire before 1992.) The accumulation of such funds, which used to be exceptional, is becoming the common practice. The sums are large. The newsletter PACs & Lobbies has calculated that the 391 House members who kept their seats in the 1990 election begin the next cycle with $80 million on hand. The comparable figure after the 1988 election was $66 million; after the 1986 election, only $44 million.

The preliminary reports suggest that nearly 100 House members emerged from the 1990 campaign with more than $250,000 in their campaign accounts. Of these, 25 had no opposition in the general election, another 63 won with more than 60 percent of the vote and 74 had more still on hand than the entire amount they spent in the 1989-90 campaign. In the 1990 House races, incumbents had available roughly nine times as much campaign money as their challengers were able to raise; the surpluses and the willingness of PACs to give still more were the reasons.

A system as stacked as this is wrong; you need not be an incumbent-basher to say so. Seats are bought even if members aren't. The House misjudges the public mood if it fails to enact reform. The need is for spending limits, and whatever it will take to make the limits stick. (For good First Amendment reasons, the courts have said such limits must be voluntary.) Republican and other opponents say reflexively that limits will only make matters worse, helping mainly Democratic incumbents and hurting challengers, who must generally outspend their opponents to win. The opposite is more likely to be true: the limits will put an upper bound on a huge advantage that now allows most incumbents of both parties to brush their challengers aside.

The House and Senate both passed reform bills last summer, but the House particularly did so without enthusiasm, and the bills were allowed to die. The House Democratic leadership needs to do better this year or admit it doesn't want a bill. The Republicans, threatened with being a semi-permanent minority, should likewise be supporters. Reform for them can only be more opportunity than threat. A balanced bill is possible between the parties. They will both be better off without bought seats; the political and legislative processes will be, as well.