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David and PACs

This David lost to Goliath last time. But Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin has asked for a rematch against the Goliath of political funding represented by PACs. His new legislation suggests nothing improper about business, labor, and other groups using PACs (political action committees) to support sym-pathetic candidates and oppose unsympa-thetic ones. It simply seeks to restore some balance between the influence of individual citizens and the impact of massive and growing organized contributions on the legislative process.

The bill's bipartisan sponsors note that a number of them have received significant PAC donations themselves. But they want to minimize the clout of such contributions. They warn of ''the politics of intimidation'' when many groups that have made substantial donations to members of Congress are all lobbying on the same side of an issue. ''The pressure generated by all these contributions is enormous and it warps the process.'' Politics becomes concentrated in Washington. ''Washington-based lobbies can squeeze and dominate Congress more effectively through the carrots and sticks of campaign money than can unorganized constituents in any congressional district.''

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So what happens to the citizen with only one vote and not a PAC to his name?

Montana last month took the kind of step that Mr. Obey and company would like to see on the federal level. It put a ceiling on the total amount a state legislative candidate can receive from all PACs - $600 for the House, $1,000 for the Senate.

The comparable figure in the congressional bill is $90,000 per House candidate for a ''cycle'' including primary and general elections. The only current limit is the $10,000 any individual PAC can give to an individual candidate.

There is no present control on PACs' ''independent'' spending for or against candidates. According to 1981-82 figures released by the Federal Election Commission last week, the biggest ''ideological'' PAC, NICPAC (National Conservative Political Action Committee), made contributions to candidates of only $263,171 from receipts of $9,990,931, but it made independent expenditures of $3,177,210.

Total PAC contributions to federal candidates rose 45 percent over 1979-80, to $87,316,285. Corporate PACs, for example, gave $29,270,815, and labor PACs $ 20,824,227.

Is it any wonder that David wants another encounter with this Goliath?

The proposed legislation would even try to get a handle on those independent expenditures that have been given credit or blame for such matters as eliminating long-time incumbents. When a PAC attacks a candidate with expenditures of $5,000 or more, the candidate would be guaranteed a choice of free media time or matching federal funds for a response.

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Partial public financing - with small individual contributions matched by federal funds - would also be available to candidates who accept the bill's limits. These include a campaign expenditure limit of $20,000 by the candidate and immediate family, and an overall spending limit of $200,000. There is a mechanism also to help equalize resources for a candidate who accepts the limitation against an opponent who does not.

If this seems complicated it is nothing in comparison with the ways the political big money has reportedly found to exploit or get around the campaign laws already on the books.

As for the inevitable controversy over the often-rejected extension of public funding from presidential campaigns to congressional campaigns, here is an issue where the public itself ought to weigh in. Are the pitfalls of public funding worse than the pitfalls of unbridled PACs? Can PAC power be subordinated to citizen power without a public funding component?

An opponent of the new Montana limits argued that PACs themselves, with their voluntary contributions from private individuals, get people involved in politics ''who might not otherwise know enough to get involved.'' With or without laws controlling the magnitude of PAC influence, PAC contributors can serve the process by following up on whether their contributions are being used as they want them to be.

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