FEDERAL CAMPAIGN "reforms" have had some wonderfully boomeranging effects. Besides lowering a flat iron of regulation onto the process, they have undermined the political parties and strengthened the role of wealthy candidates and organized interest groups. How's that for reform? The rise of political action committees (PACs), advancing all sorts of economic and ideological interests, has been especially swift. PAC gifts to House campaigns alone went from about $14 million in 1976 to almost $25 million in 1977-78. According to one count, the number of House candidates getting over $50,000 from PACs has more than tripled - from 57 in 1976 to 176 (including 106 incumbents) last year.
How should this picture be improved? Some analysts at Harvard University's Institute of Politics have suggested an interesting course - not greater public intervention, but partial decontrol. Their study, commissioned by the House Administration Committee, includes some ideas for deregulation, such as exempting more activities from disclosure rules. But its analysis of campaign financing is intriguing, because it concludes that the best way to limit the influence of interest-group donations is to let political parties and individuals give more.
There is great sense in this. For instance, currently a citizen may give a candidate for federal office no more than $1,000 per election, one-fifth as much as a PAC may give. That gives a hard-pressed candidate ample reason to concentrate on courting interest groups. It also enhances the advantage of incumbents, who tend to get about two-thirds of the PACs' gifts. Raising the ceiling on individual gifts to perhaps $3,000, as the Harvard group recommends, could make political competition healthier. The report also calls for larger tax credits for small individual donations, one form of public subsidy that is easy to administer.
The same idea - reducing the imbalance between individual and interest-group gifts - is being pursued by Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Tom Railsback (R-Ill.). They would go at it somewhat differently, by lowering the ceiling on PAC contributions and limiting the total that any candidate may take from PACs. The Harvard analysts, however, reject tighter limits - because they think campaigns should have more money than they do.
The trouble with that is that running for Congress has already become a growth industry, highly larded with itinerant consultants, elaborate advertising campaigns and large investments in the care and feeding of staff. Those tendencies are even creeping into campaigns for local offices and part-time state legislative seats. The trend away from volunteer, low-budget campaigning may be unstoppable, but there is no reason to encourage it.