Rep. Newton I. Steers (R-Md.), in a complaint filed yesterday with the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, charged that his opponent, Democrat Michael Barnes, is engaging in a campaign of "increasingly deeliberate distortions" of Steers' performance in Congress.
Barnes branded the Steers' action a "desperation response" to the challenger's belief that "I'm now the front-runner and going to win" the 8th Congressional District seat in Montgomery County.
The complaint, signed by Steers' campaign manager, David S. O'Bryon, citied five examples of what it called "distortions and misstatements" in Barnes' campaign literature and commercials about Steers' voting record as a freshman member of the House.
The nonpartisan committee, founded in 1954 to monitor campaigns, has no official standing, but acts as a clearinghouse for allegations of mudslinging.
Earlier this month, Barnes sent his complaint about Steers to the committee, charging that the incumbent was using his franking privilege to mail campaign literature, a charge that Steers denied.
"He knows we haven't misstated his votes," said Barnes. "He is clearly running scared and resorting to petulant, last-minute tactics."
The stongly worded Steers complaint, accompanied by a series of exhibits, said, "There is no greater of fense against our system of Democracy than a systematic and deliberate campaign of lies."
Steers said he reluctantly agreed to the action, at the urging of his campaign staff, even though polling by his supporters indicates he has a comfortable lead over Barnes. He agreed, he said, because "the allegations are getting ever so more inaccurate" and because he has learned Barnes is kicking off a television advertising campaign in which "I have no hope he'll be any more accurate."
Steer said his poll shows he not only has a commanding lead among Republicans, but that he also will get a majority of votes from Democrats and independents. The latter is necessary if he is to win reelection in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.
Told of Steers' comments on polling, Barnes said, "That's simply not possible." Steers' findings "are not consistent with what we see" in polling, Barnes said.
At the heart of the argument now before the Fair Campaign Practices Committee are interpretations of Steers votes on three issues: oil and gas deregulation, nuclear power and congressional and election reform. The two men have been arguing about Steer's position on those issues since they exchanged a series of private letters last November.
In campaign literature, Barnes contends that Steers "voted with the Texas-Louisians-Okalhoma oil and gas interests to deregulate the price of oil and gas - votes that will result in dramatic increases in the utility bills of every resident of our county. In a Barnes radio commercial, a woman's voice says "I've learned that my congressman, Newton Steers, "has voted to raise the price of oil and gas. That may be all right for Newton Steers - he's a millionaire and owns oil and gas company stocks."
Steers responds by saying he strongly opposed the gasoline tax proposed by the Carter administration. He voted to deregulate the price of new oil, but says that is "a relatively noncontroversial feature of virtually all conservation programs" considered by Congress.
On an amendment that Steers said the Consumer Federation of America and Ralph Nader termed the key vote, he vote against deregulation, as he did "when deregulation became the major feature" of the Senate-House energy compromise.
Barnes' literature says Steers "voted for the environmentally and economically unsound Clinch River breeder reactor and coal slurry pipeline (he was the only Maryland vote in favor)." Barnes says Steers had an opportunity to vote last year to kill the project, but did not. Steers says he voted last year to postpone funding for the nuclear reactor and this year voted to kill it.
Finally, Barnes' literature says Steers "voted against congressional reform and public financing of congressional elections." Barnes says he is referring to Steers' vote against part of a package of "reform" measures sponsored by Rep. David R. Obey (D. Wis.). But Steers responds that Common Cause reported that he voted for "the good government position in every case" on eight relevant votes. Steers says he "would have voted for public financing (of campaigns) but it never came to a vote."
Steers wants the committee to get a clarification or retraction from Barnes or secure agreement to have the complaints arbitrated either by ombudsmen for The Post or Star, a panel of reporters or the League of Women Voters.