"If you're going to sell out," a politician I once worked for said to an aide considering a job offer, "at least get a good price." It's advice members of Congress should ponder, as they decide what to do about campaign contributions from political action committees with narrow, specific interests.

You know what I mean. In the last Congress, you saw the House and Senate vote by large margins to overturn a Federal Trade Commission regulation affecting used-car dealers. You saw Congress support, till it was stalled at the end of the session, a measure supported by SIXPAC--yes, that's the real name--exempting beer wholesalers from the antitrust laws and allowing them to have exclusive territories. You saw the House vote for domestic content legislation sought by the United Auto Workers and for a measure sought by the American Medical Association exempting doctors from regulation by the FTC--after the UAW and the AMA PACs had each contributed more than $1 million over the past four years to members who supported their positions.

Now we can stipulate that no member of Congress changed his vote specifically in return for a contribution, right? That would be a crime. But it certainly looks as if a lot of lobbies went over to Congress and, in the aggregate, bought legislative action they wanted. Some members may have felt that they owed these organizations--or someone in their district who is, say, a beer wholesaler or a UAW Local president--a favor, and repaid it. Others may have felt that since their measures were likely to go through anyway, why not take the $500 contribution and vote their way?

After all, these are matters in which the interest of any single member of the general public is much smaller than the interest of each member of the group that is lobbying. So you please the people that really care and trust that the rest won't hear anything about the matter, or won't care much if they do.

In any particular case, that's probably a shrewd, if cynical, calculation. It's one way to build up the campaign treasury of $400,000 or so you will need in the next election. But when you start doing these things over and over, you establish a pattern. And sooner or later the public is going to catch on to it.

When it does, the impression it's going to have is of a Congress that is up for sale. And of a local congressman who does not even wait for the highest bidder, but sells out to the first one in his office with a $500 check. Such an impression reinforces cynicism about government and the political process. It also could contribute to the defeat of more than a few congressmen.

Maybe we will have to wait for the first few defeats of incumbent congressmen by challengers who harp on such an issue. It's not hard to imagine the campaign they'll run, nor is it hard to imagine that an issue that ordinarily would not interest the public, if it is phrased along the lines of "Congressman X's vote is for sale," could suddenly become the central focus of a campaign.

Most congressmen will reply indignantly that they wouldn't sell out for a measly $500. Then why do they do things that give that impression? Congressmen can avoid the problem individually by declining contributions from PACs that are obviously interested in one or two specific issues.

Institutionally, Congress could avoid many of these situations altogether if it would stop trying to give itself legislative vetoes over every regulation a federal agency can issue; these have become standing invitations for affected private interests to come into Congress and buy a favorable regulation--for a cheap price. And Congress could protect itself by changing the campaign finance laws to limit or prohibit such contributions. Even the most cynical members might begin to wonder if it makes sense to risk their careers for a few $500 contributions.