A congressman from Wisconsin gave his colleagues something to think about just as they were going home to spend the last of their campaign money for yesterday's election. It was a bill ingeniously combining carrots and sticks to make the next election less expensive - and the candidates less beholden to big money. It introduces public financing of congressional elections according to a voluntary formula that ought to make such financing acceptable if anything does. Above all, it provides an immediate focus for citizens and their representatives to deal with the campaign money tree instead of letting the issue blow away once more with the election posters.
Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin has previously sponsored legislation to reduce the impact of PACs (political action committees) and seen it languish. Now he is combining PACs limitations with public funding prospects in an offer he hopes candidates cannot refuse. The fact that they can refuse is calculated to preserve constitutionality in the face of court decisions striking down certain spending limits.
In simplest terms, two opposing candidates would both be rewarded with financial aid if they agreed to holding campaign costs down. If one chose not to cooperate, he or she would be penalized both in not being eligible for aid and in making the other one eligible for additional aid in the interests of competition.
Here's how it would work:
* Each candidate for the House of Representatives would have a ceiling of $90 ,000 in contributions from all PACs for an ''election cycle,'' including primary and general elections.
* Since limits on PAC contributions are supposed to give an advantage to incumbents, candidates would be offered the option of receiving public financing for the general election.
* The public financing would be based on one-to-one matching of up to $90,000 in contributions of no more than $100 each, with 80 percent of them from residents of the candidate's own state. To this total of $180,000 could be added no more than $20,000 from the candidate and his or her immediate family.
* Such limits would not be required of candidates who chose not to accept public financing.
* If a candidate agrees to the limits - and his opponent refuses to agree to the limits - the first candidate becomes eligible for public financing on a two-to-one basis without the $180,000 limit.
* What of so-called independent expenditures by PACs for candidates in addition to direct contributions? To take a typical case, financing of a TV commercial against one candidate on behalf of another candidate: The targeted candidate would be given the choice of a free TV response to the attack or public funds equivalent to the expenditure laid out against him.
This may be more than you want to know about campaign financing the day after an election. But such complexities have to be grappled with in the interests of equitable reform.
Without some such efforts to moderate campaign costs, elections threaten to become more and more contests between amounts of money rather than qualities of candidates. PACs have been calculated by some to represent no more aggregate labor and corporate expenditure than was provided through legal and dubious means in earlier days. The open institutionalization of such contributions is thus a step forward. But the pitfalls for public policy mount when in many cases the interests of both labor and business PACs coincide - on military spending or environmental cutbacks, for example - and not necessarily in the public interest. Thus there seems merit in a ceiling on what candidates can receive from them as a whole.
Increasing the limits on individual contributions has been suggested as a means of offsetting the organized clout of the PACs. This ought to be considered in the legislative debate.
However, the giver capable of only small amounts is the one usually left out. Thus the thrust toward increasing the number of small contributions appears to be on the right track.
The point is not to wait until the next election to reach some decisions on what to do.