The brass ring that election law reformers could never quite grasp in the 1970s--is poised for a return engagement on Capitol Hill.
The issue has been rekindled by a $300 million midterm congressional election campaign that was the costliest ever, even adjusted for inflation, and the most heavily financed by special interest money.
"For the first time since I have been in Congress, this is something people want to talk to me about on the streets of my district," said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), who supports reforms that would limit the role of political action committees in congressional campaigns and impose a voluntary system of spending limits and public matching funds.
But even if the public is as troubled by the impact of big money on political campaigns as Glickman suggests, he and other reformers acknowledge they face a knotty partisan fight.
"I see this as a two-Congress battle," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, the watchdog group that has long advocated a public financing system. "What it will take, in all likelihood, is a Democratic administration," said Mark Green, president of the Democracy Project, another independent group.
Even that may not be enough. The last heavy push for a system of spending limits and matching public funds for congressional races came from Jimmy Carter, who had made such legislation a major campaign issue in 1976.
The bills he supported ran into heavy and ultimately fatal fire from the GOP. Challengers, said the GOP--which in most recent elections has been challenging for more seats than it has had to defend -- must be free to spend without limit to overcome the vast natural advantages and built-in public relations mechanisms that incumbents enjoy.
"Republicans do not favor suicide," said Bill Brock, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, the last time public financing was seriously proposed. "It is a power play by the Democrats that seeks to stifle and control Republican challengers' access to voters."
Even though there are more Republican incumbents now than there were in the late 1970s, the party's posture hasn't changed. In fact, the vast fund-raising advances the party has made in the past several years have only served to stiffen its opposition.
There is a second aspect of any ceiling that troubles Republicans: anything that caps money but places no limit on such forms of campaign assistance as voluntary manpower (where Democrats, with their ties to organized labor, are more richly endowed) is inherently unfair, they say.
Finally, such bills are opposed on ideological grounds by conservatives who do not believe the government should be in the business of underwriting campaigns.
Arrayed against these objections, however, is a deepening skepticism among voters toward the explosion in campaign costs.
PACs have been a target of reformers for the past three years. In 1980, the nation's 3,200-plus PACs provided a quarter of the funds raised by all congressional candidates and a third of all funds raised by winners. Though final figures are not available, these percentages are believed to have risen slightly in 1982.
"It's not that votes are brought and sold for PAC contributions," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wisc.), a leading reformer. "It's more subtle. What the PACs do is cut down on risk-taking among members of Congress. You know you're going to have to raise X hundred thousand for your next campaign, and there's a tendency to say, 'Well, I just can't afford to cast too many unpopular votes with the PACs .' It's just a normal human reaction."
In 1979, Obey was a prime sponsor of a bill that would have have placed a $70,000 limit on the contributions a House candidate could receive from all PACs in any two-year election cycle. (At present, a candidate can receive no more than $10,000 from any one PAC, but there is no aggregate limit.)
The proposal narrowly passed the House but died in the Senate.
Obey is now ready to try again, but this time is including in his bill a public financing component. That's because reform-minded critics of his earlier bill said it only exacerbated the advantages of wealthy candidates (who are permitted, under a 1976 Supreme Court decision, to spend without limit on their own campaigns) and it didn't deal with the growing phenomenon of so-called negative expenditures by PACs.
Obey introduced a bill last month that, though subject to tinkering, is likely to become the new basic menu for reform. In House races it would:
* Limit total PAC contributions to $90,000 per cycle.
* Impose a voluntary limit of $180,000 in campaign spending for general election candidates.
* Allow candidates who raise up to $90,000 in small contributions within their district a dollar-for-dollar match from the federal government.
* Give to any candidate whose opponent does not agree to the spending limit a two-for-one match and free him from a spending limit.
* Provide extra public financing to candidates subject to attacks by independent expenditure groups