"How long, Millicent, will the public put up with our bought votes?" That was the question posed by a colleague on the last day of our regular 1982 session. We were standing in the well of the House, watching the lights go up on the board, red or green, dependably following the desire and pressure of one of the special interest groups which dominate so much legislation.

That these groups influence voting is undeniable. "I took $58,000. They want it," was the explanation one colleague gave me for his vote, bought by a number of donations from a number of groups of similar orientation. Or consider the statement on the floor of the House by a colleague announcing his retirement: "I take $10,000 from one, $10,000 from another. I know why they give this to me and they know I know. If I do what they want, I feel I've been bought. If I don't, I feel . . ." he hesitated "ungracious." I think he meant "like a cheat." He went on, "I can't do it anymore. I'm not running again."

Why is this happening in our electoral process? The terrible truth, I believe, is that these gifts pay off. Eleven hundred and forty-six special interest groups contributed $12.5 million in 1974. In 1980 they numbered 2,551 and gave $55.3 milllion. This year 3,479 special interest groups are estimated to be giving $80 million.

Powerful committee and subcommittee chairmen get most of the money, and the public doesn't know why certain bills never move, why others are watered down. The voters never understand the tremendous price they pay when bought votes for one bad bill are traded for other bought votes for another bad bill.

This is not to deny that many of the finest people I have ever known are members of Congress --high-minded, hard-working, devoted to the public good. And it is also true that hundreds of members simply accept contributions from those who agree with their views anyway. But it is discouraging to hear one well-respected commentator deplore the effect of these gifts as damaging to the campaign system while maintaining that they have no effect on voting. We have seen what can happen to voting. Now we might consider what has happened to campaigning.

It's quite simple. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the First Amendment allows a multimillionaire to spend any amount--any amount -- of his own money in a campaign. So, in order to be able to compete, a candidate of modest means can only accept money from any source, no matter what the conditions that may be attached. This is clearly not fair. It puts honest people at a terrible disadvantage and under terrible pressures more or less overt or subtle depending on the nature of the donor.

It also makes possible an outrage such as this: the administrative assistant of one candidate, the incumbent chairman of a powerful committee, telephoned the director of one of the organizations affected by legislation the committee was considering. A substantial contribution was suggested, with a reminder about the pending legislation, and a handsome contribution did indeed follow. So the system works both ways.

All this is admittedly the darkest side of the situation in Congress now. But it's all true, and most people will admit that money has become far too important an element in our congressional elections. As Sen. Kennedy is reported to have said, "This is the best Congress that money could buy."

There is a rumor that one concerned colleague is planning a constitutional amendment that will permit limitations on campaign spending. Perhaps a move such as this would prompt some serious study of the problem by political scientists and politicians, by the press and the public. It's a bipartisan national problem, and it must be faced honestly and openly.

Money is twisting and corrupting the very theory that used to be our ideal. Thomas Jefferson's vision of a representative leaving the farm or factory for a term or two to represent the district has turned into a ball game for professionals, selling candidates on canned 30-second spots, directing "strategy" and "tactics." Money makes it possible and, in itself, increases the problem every election year. It's time to stop.