IN 1974, WHEN Congress was writing the Federal Election Reform Act, the House and the Senate disagreed, among other things, over the question of the maximum amount any citizen should legally be able to contribute to any candidate for federal office. The Senate wanted a ceiling of $3,000. The House insisted upon -- and got into the law -- a $1,000 maximum. That was 1974.

A lot of prices have changed since 1974, including the prices paid for television time. But the $1,000 ceiling on individual contributions is still in place. In 1974, the price of a 30-second nighttime spot on Portland television was $55. On the same station today (which a presidential candidate in the Oregon primary would probably want to know), the cost is $3,000. In San Diego, the increase has been from $509 in 1974 to $3,000 in 1980. Closer to home, Baltimore also has reached $3,000 for a 30-second spot. Six years ago, the Baltimore cost was $1,100. The nation's capital is no slouch in television rates either, you will be happy to know: 30 seconds of prime time in this city now cost $3,750, comfortably ahead of Portland, San Diego and Baltimore.

One answer to these skyrocketing costs would be to forgo advertising on television if you are running for president. Unfortunately, with 26 primaries in the next nine weeks, there is really no other means of communicating with voters in that many places in so short a period of time. Coffee and plant gates won't do it. Bumper-stickers and buttons are far more expendable in presidential campaigns than television advertising, the cost of which -- for creating, producing and putting on the air -- is usually more than half the total candidate expense in each primary.

Costs of travel, meals and hotels have all climbed right along with broadcast time. A 96-seat chartered jet for a four-day trip to nine Eastern cities, which cost a campaign $37,500 in the last presidential campaign, set this year's candidate back $91,173.

The $1,000 limit on contributions, which because of inflation is worth approximately $500 now, is simply too low. It was unrealistic, at the time, to have set the same ceiling for presidential races as for elections to the House of Representatives. And while the expenditures are indexed to the cost of living, the contributions are not. And as anyone who is thinking about buying a 30-second spot in an upcoming primary state can plainly see, $1,000 does not go very far today.

It may hold limited perverse appeal for some people to watch presidential candidates running out of money as they preach frugality, but it doesn't really mean either better campaigns or better politics. We are rash enough to suggest that no presidential candidate can be purchased or compromised for $5,000 from any citizen.