An unconditional prediction: a new federal campaign finance law--one that imposes severe limits on all political action committees and provides for some form of public financing of congressional elections-- will be enacted within the next 24 months. While a majority in Congress and the president now almost surely oppose any such law, their resistance will be overwhelmed by future public events. A major political money scandal will be uncovered that will guarantee passage of the laws.

All congresses respond to crisis. The criminal excesses of Watergate, particularly in the illegal raising and spending of campaign funds, probably made full disclosure and public funding of presidential campaigns inevitable. We and Congress will learn, sooner rather than later, of another (probably more than one) major political money scandal. Once again, promising careers will be ruined, prison sentences will be handed out and Congress will pass and the president will sign a tough new campaign finance law.

Able and committed politicians in both parties see the problem clearly. Bob Teeter, the Republican pollster whose 1976 strategy brought President Ford from a deficit of 16 million votes to within an eyelash of victory in 11 weeks, is worried by the rivers of campaign money now drowning American politics: "It's just like 1972," he says. "There's too much money around not to have a scandal." Missouri Democratic Sen. Tom Eagleton, who has been winning statewide races since 1960, argues that contemporary political fund-raising is "a national scandal" that "is taking place every day." New York Rep. Barber Conable, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, sees the ever-growing public perception of scandal in present fund-raising practices as producing more pressure for public financing of elections. Conable, who refuses campaign contributions of more than $50, compares the existing system of candidates' dunning all who represent interests before the House for contributions to his days in private law practice, when judges running for reelection raised their campaign budgets by "putting the arm on all of us lawyers who appeared before their court."

Public financing will not be entirely unwelcome. Most candidates would, if given the alternative, choose root canal work over asking anyone for money. Most of the current resistance to public financing comes from the Republicans, many of whom, after telling us there is no connection between contributions and a congressman's vote, then remind us that "there is no free lunch," that every program has a price tag. Apparently altruism only applies to contributions by political action committees. But it will probably make little difference what anyone argues, because a major scandal will end the debate and move the previous question.