No it'snot a misprint. For the first time since 1972, when the federal campaign laws started keeping accurate track of these things, campaign spending by congressional candidates was down from one two-year period to the next. Major party candidates spent $165 million on the 1984 elections, down from $174.5 million in the preceding two-year cycle. The drop is all the more startling because it comes after years of hefty, far-above-inflation increases in campaign spending. Why the change? And what does it mean?

One reason for the change may be that campaign spending has reached a level of diminishing returns. Money is not automatically convertible into votes, as shopping center heir Adam Levin of New Jersey could tell you: Mr. Levin spent some $2.3 million, most of it his own money, on a House race in 1982 and won just 43 percent of the vote. The lesson here was not lost on politicians around the nation, and it should be noted that 1984's biggest spender, New York Democrat Andrew Stein ($1.7 million), also lost. You can only spend so much on television (the stations typically limit the amount of time any candidate can buy), and you can only mail out so much literature. Campaign spending in House races took a big jump between the middle 1970s, when most candidates didn't buy TV time, and the early 1980s, when candidates in almost every seriously contested race did. But candidates haven't yet found a new medium into which to pour huge sums.

The other reason for the dropoff in spending on House races is that fewer of them were seriously contested in 1984 than in 1982 or other recent years. There were fewer close races, fewer open seats, more unopposed members. Voters expressed higher levels of confidence in government in polls during the fall and returned to office a near-record number of incumbent congressmen in November.

Those still a bit weary of last fall's TV ads may hail the drop in spending on congressional races as a good thing. That's not so clear. Campaign contributions were way up and, as Common Cause points out, what rose most rapidly were PAC contributions to incumbent members -- which may be investments in more than good government. And who, aside from incumbents weary of the travail of campaigning, believes that a decline in serious competition is a good thing? In an age when voters don't actively seek information about congressional candidates, effective campaigning requires money, and usually lots of it. When -- if -- Congress gets around to reforming the campaign laws, it needs not only to do something about the overly large sums of the wrong kind of money flowing to candidates; it also must make sure that enough of the right kind of money gets to candidates. Those who want to limit the amounts that PACs can contribute should be sure to insist as well on measures that will encourage and allow increased giving by individuals and the political parties.