Washington — This year's federal election campaigns were long, at times bitter, and (surprise!) the most expensive in United States history. Preliminary figures hint that spending on the congressional races was 10 to 25 percent higher than in 1982. Meanwhile, political-action committees have been more generous than ever: PAC giving is up some 23 percent.
Through Oct. 17, the 802 major House candidates and 65 Senate aspirants had spent $232 million on their general election campaigns, according to a Common Cause analysis of reports filed at the Federal Election Commission (FEC). That's the price of seven Navy F-14 fighters. It also represents about a 10 percent increase over a comparable figure from 1982.
Fund raising, as opposed to spending, is up 25 percent from the last election cycle, and when the final figures for congressional election spending are in, there's a good chance they will be up more than 10 percent.
Many candidates this year held back large reserves of cash, perhaps for last-minute use. Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, for instance, anxious about his reelection chances, was sitting on a $400,000 treasure chest in mid-October.
Congressional primaries were particularly expensive. Candidate spending from January of 1983 through last June was 21 percent above the amount spent in the same period of the previous election cycle, according to an FEC study.
Even so, according to Common Cause, there were several electoral quirks this year that probably held spending lower than it might have been otherwise. Races for open House seats tend to be much more expensive than incumbent/challenger duels, and this year there were less than half as many open races as in 1982.
Also, the Senate seats up for grabs this year represented fewer voters than those contested last cycle.
As always, the trend in campaign finance is seen most clearly when translated into the sum one person is willing to spend to serve on Capitol Hill.
In 1982, the biggest-spending Senate candidate was Mark Dayton, who lost his bid for a Minnesota seat despite his $7.2 million war chest.
This cycle, four Senate candidates had beaten Mr. Dayton's record by Oct. 17: Sen. Jesse Helms (R) in North Carolina, with $14 million; Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) in West Virginia, $9 million; Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) in North Carolina, with $7.7 million, and Rep. Phil Gramm (R) in Texas, with $7.6 million.
On the House side, one candidate cracked the magic $1 million spending mark by Oct. 17: Andrew Stein (D) of New York, who had spent $1.1 million in his dash to represent Manhattan's East Side. Twenty-eight House candidates had spent more than $500,000 by Oct. 17.
As always, incumbents were much more successful than challengers at attracting contributions. House incumbents raised $2.40 for each $1 attracted by challengers.
Meanwhile, PACs, the Andrew Carnegies of post-Watergate campaign finance, have been pouring more and more money into US politics.
''PACs are by no means the dominant element in congressional campaign finance , but their relative importance has clearly grown,'' noted Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego, earlier this year.
According to the latest figures, PAC contributions to candidates in the 1984 election were $82 million, an increase of 23 percent over the comparable figure from last cycle.
PAC money seems to be particularly important in House races. PACs accounted for 36 percent of the money raised by House candidates this year, through October; in 1982 such committees provided 31 percent of House campaign funds.
Congressman Jones of Oklahoma was the greatest benefactor of PAC largess, receiving $585,000. Rep. Les AuCoin (D) of Oregon got $366,000; Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D) of Minnesota received $355,000.
PACs tend to account for a smaller share of the funds in a typical Senate race. This year they were the source of 18 percent of Senate campaign funds through Oct. 17. Two Senate candidates received more than $1 million in PAC money: Congressman Gramm of Texas and Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois.
Senate figures also indicate that PACs are conservative, in the sense that they prefer donating to incumbents instead of challengers.
This year Senate incumbents got $3.30 in PAC funds for every $1 given to challengers.
According to an FEC study released last week, the No. 1 PAC in contributions to federal candidates was the Realtors Political Action Committee, at $890,000. No. 2 was the American Medical Association PAC, at $792,000.
Final donations will likely be much higher.