SENATE MAJORITY Leader George Mitchell has put a seal of priority on his party's campaign finance reform bill, calling it S. 3, and minority leader Bob Dole, not to be outdone, has called his party's bills S. 6 and 7. The low license plates are not just symbolic. The Senate produced a thoughtful bill last year, the Democratic framework of spending limits and partial public finance moderated enough on the margins (mostly sensibly) to win five Republican votes atop 54 Democratic ones. If the leaders stick to their good intentions, the same will be done in this Congress, only earlier and better. The familiar differences persist between the parties, but where there has been a will they have found a way to resolve them, and the bill made the better for it.
The House is much likelier to be a problem. It too passed a Democratic bill last year, but with less enthusiasm and less of an effort to cross the party line. The problem in the House is different and the process less far along. In the House as well as the Senate, the price of office has become too high. The average House winner spent close to $400,000 last election, less than a tenth of what the average Senate winner spent. But adjusted for size of district and length of term, the amount is nearly the same.
In the House, however, incumbents seem able to outraise their challengers more easily than in the Senate; in the last cycle their financial advantage was $9 to $1. The election results reflected this; once again more than 95 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection won. More than half the incumbents collected more in contributions than they felt compelled to spend; they made money at campaigning even as the cost of campaigning continued to rise. The surpluses, which will be used to ward off future challengers, are largely owed to PACs, the giving arms of interest groups, which in the average House campaign account for nearly half of contributions, twice the less odious Senate average. The House has a problem with the mix of money as well as the amount.
Question, then: Messrs. Mitchell and Dole have been heard from. Where are the speaker and House majority and minority leaders? They too can produce a bill if they will. The Republicans are wrong to argue as some do that spending limits will hurt them, in that challengers (mostly Republicans in a Democratic Congress) must outspend their opponents to win. What could condemn the Republicans to minority status more efficiently than the present system? The Democrats cannot afford to be identified with that system, either. It can be cleansed -- the central role of money in campaigns can be reduced -- in such a way that neither party loses and the institution gains. The Senate leaders were right; reform will be a measure of both parties in this Congress.