THE United States Supreme Court's rejection of limits on political action committee spending on behalf of candidates -- when such spending is independent of the campaigns' control -- is consistent with its earlier decision upholding the rights of individuals to spend without restraint to elect or defeat candidates. So long as PACs and individuals could spend some money independently on behalf of candidates -- only $1,000 was permitted by federal election law for any one candidate -- it appeared inconsistent to put a lid on such spending, the court ruled, 7 to 2. In his majority opinion, Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist declared there is no such thing as a little free speech: ``Allowing the presentation of views while forbidding the expenditure of more than $1,000 to present them is much like allowing a speaker in a public hall to express his views while denying him the use of an amplifying system,'' he wrote.
Dissenting, Justice Byron White found this argument unconvincing. The court left intact federal limits on contributions to PACs of $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from other PACs. It's ``nonsensical,'' White wrote, to consider contributions to PACs any less a form of speech than spending by PACs. He has a point.
Federal election law was intended, after the Watergate scandal, to curb abuse in the flow of money through campaigns. It was intended to hold together of a piece, like a massive dike to contain the huge potential reservoir of money that could again wash out public confidence in the political process.
Money to secure influence and access is out there. More than $1 billion was spent on political campaigns at all levels in the last two presidential-year elections, under current law. While on a per capita basis the amounts spent on US elections are not out of line with spending in other democracies, there is still a widespread public impression that the political process is being tainted by the availability of campaign cash.
In the presidential election, candidates accepting equal federal funds -- $40.4 million each in 1984 -- can face unequal financial challenges if one candidate has an extra $10 million or more lined up on his side in independent PAC outlays, such as Mr. Reagan enjoyed in 1984.
Money may not be the most decisive factor in election outcomes. The record often shows an inverse relationship between the amount spent and a candidate's success. Incumbency remains the biggest advantage, whether in attracting campaign funds or getting votes.
A wide open democracy invites heavy campaign spending. But big spending can do a lot of mischief when, outside the control of candidates, it helps inject unfounded or twisted assertions into the public arena. Former Senate majority leader Howard Baker recommended this week, at the initial meeting of the Commission on National Elections, that ``direct participation'' by candidates themselves should be required in television ads, which often say little about the candidate or are run by others.
Such a requirement would help assure accountability in political campaigns. A candidate may have enough to do to face his opponent, without having to protect his campaign from free-lance PAC adversaries.
Given the court's decision opening another fissure in the election-law dike, the required reporting of contributions and outlays -- and scrutiny of them for evidence of unseemly patterns of influence -- rather than limitations on amounts, probably remains the most effective part of the federal election laws.