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Money and candidates

IN politics as in much of the rest of life, money comes in for a lot of blame. How American political campaigns are financed, for instance, and how much they cost, have been fueling a filibuster in the United States Senate. Some changes are in order - better monitoring, and limiting, of organized giving through political-action committees (PACs), and the encouraging of more individual giving to campaigns through tax incentives and higher contribution limits.

But first some perspective: None of the major issues in Washington today - the Iran-contra affair, the budget fiddle-de-dee, the arms control quandary - derive from how campaigns are financed.

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It would be better if House and Senate incumbents stayed around for chamber votes instead of heading off to Los Angeles or Miami to raise money. And better candidates just might apply if seed money to run were more readily found.

High campaign costs partly reflect modern political marketing strategy, with its new legions of media specialists. They reflect too the sheer availability of large chunks of cash through PACs. But the 1986 elections introduced a new ``doctrine of sufficiency,'' as campaign finance expert Herbert Alexander of the University of California points out: The sky needn't be the limit in campaign spending when candidates can win despite being widely outspent by opponents.

Certain campaigns consume outrageous sums, and incumbents still want huge war chests to scare off opponents, but dollars alone do not decide the makeup of America's political leadership.

The standoff in the Senate now is over a proposal to link federal funds for Senate and House races to a candidate's acceptance of a spending limit. PAC contributions would be reduced, both in the amounts individuals can give and in the proportion of overall spending a candidate can fund through PACs.

The Republicans oppose public financing and spending caps, nor do they want limits on how much the national parties can contribute to campaigns - the latter, especially, constituting a GOP advantage. Democrats, who are pushing the legislation, would like to come up with a campaign finance proposal analogous to the presidential system, which requires candidates who accept federal matching funds to submit to spending limits.

What to do? Some congressional analysts like Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute propose other steps: Revive a full tax credit for small contributions, say up to $100, for in-state candidates (a 50 percent tax credit was eliminated in last year's tax reform); raise individual contribution limits from $1,000 now to $5,000, to help concentrate the fund-raising process and make start-up fund raising easier; and reduce the maximum for PAC contributions from $5,000 to $3,000, to tilt the process away from PACs. Cost-saving steps, such as special rates for political TV ads and mailing, might help. But with half the legislative districts' primaries occurring after Labor Day, too little time would remain for a grant system to work, without a more drastic schedule overhaul than the states might accept.

We favor taking what gains can be made in this Congress.

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But this, frankly, might not be the best time for a campaign finance battle. The Democrats may be trying to set the White House up for a veto. And Senate majority leader Robert Byrd might actually have 1989 more in mind, when his party conceivably might control both White House and Congress.

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