WASHINGTON — FROM honorariums to campaign contributions, the ethics issue has swirled like an ill wind through the marble halls of Congress for the past year. Now it may at last have led to some results: Reform of the much-criticized system of financing congressional campaigns finally seems possible.
``I hope and expect that we will have meaningful campaign finance reform this year,'' says Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine. He cites the ``enormous cost [and] inordinate length'' of congressional campaigns as forcing attention to reform.
He and House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington both talk of the importance of action in 1990. ``The Speaker and I are in agreement that campaign finance reform is a high priority this year,'' Senator Mitchell says.
A key and particularly contentious issue: Should an upper limit be slapped on the amount of money a congressional candidate can spend on campaigning. Democrats favor such a ceiling; Republicans oppose it.
There are two other significant problems: ``soft'' money and political action committee (PAC) contributions. Soft money is campaign contributions made to state political parties, which then are used to make end runs around campaign financing laws in various ways. These include polling, and registering blocks of voters who are most likely to vote for the candidate the party supports.
The principal campaign finance reform bill now under consideration in the Senate, sponsored by Senators Mitchell and David Boren (D) of Oklahoma would address these issues.
The Senate Rules Committee has been holding hearings on the bill. Mitchell says he hopes the committee will complete its work on the measure this week and that the full Senate will vote on the proposal before the end of this month.
If Congress makes any changes in the present system one of the most likely would be to require more restrictions on and disclosure of soft money, Thomas Mann, director of the governmental studies program of the Brookings Institution, says. Soft money is ``one thing that we definitely must attack,'' says Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas.
Another likely change would be to reduce the maximum amount that PACs can give candidates, Mr. Mann says.
``The perception is growing that PAC-funding is wrong,'' Senator Pryor says.
Large amounts of money are involved. From 1983 through 1988, PACs that represent special interests gave $194 million in campaign contributions to current US representatives, according to statistics released last Friday by Common Cause. The organization added that during the same six years special-interest PACs contributed $97 million to current US senators.
Business representatives protest that PACs are unfairly criticized.
``PACS help those who do not have great personal wealth to compete with those who do,'' says R. Gary Wilson, chairman the national public affairs steering committee of the National Association of Manufacturers.
The cost of political campaigns is widely agreed to be a major part of the problem.
The Federal Election Commission says that 70 candidates, including incumbents, who seek election to the Senate this fall report having raised $62 million last year. Fifteen incumbents have more than $1 million in hand.
``More time now is spent [by members of Congress] raising money than legislating,'' Norman Ornstein, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says.
``The most important improvements that we would make for challengers would be to impose campaign spending limits,'' Mitchell says. He and others note that incumbents usually far outspend challengers.
Republicans see it differently. They say those challengers who are able to raise large sums of money are able to counter the advantages of incumbency. Since the House is overwhelmingly Democratic, putting a ceiling on spending will hinder Republican efforts to capture currently Democratic seats, they say.
What propelled Congress toward possible action this year was the fund-raising issue involving California thrift owner Charles Keating and five senators: Alan Cranston (D) of California, Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, John Glenn (D) of Ohio, John McCain (R) of Arizona, and Donald Riegle (D) of Michigan.
The five senators are being probed by the Senate Ethics Committee because they met with federal regulators after having received large campaign contributions from Mr. Keating. The committee wants to know whether they exerted improper influence on the bank regulators. The senators say they did nothing wrong.
Congress fears it is vulnerable to the charge from voters that campaign contributors get special treatment from lawmakers.
``We probably wouldn't be having campaign finance reform come up,'' if it weren't for the Keating case and other ethics cases, Mr. Ornstein says.
Despite their differences, ``both houses feel under some pressure to produce reform'' this year, says the Brookings Institution's Mann.
A principal reason is to convince voters before the November election that Congress is trying to prevent a repetition of the ethical questions that have dogged several of its members.
``We're going to get some action'' this year, says Ornstein, who also cites election-year pressure.
Mann is less certain, noting the distance members of Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, must come if compromise is to be reached. Democrats and Republicans must compromise both in the Senate and the House.
There is a genuine effort at compromise in the Senate, Mann says.
But he says Democrats may not be looking to compromise in the House, instead preferring to gain a political victory by proposing something to which Republicans won't agree.
Speaker Foley disagrees: ``We're hoping'' the final House bill will have some bipartisan aspects.
Foley and his Republican counterpart, minority leader Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, agreed Thursday that campaign finance would be a legislative priority in the House this year. They decided to ask a bipartisan House task force to find out which campaign finance reform issues House members from the two parties agree on.
Unless some major scandal erupts, the outcome is likely to yield ``incremental, small changes'' in campaign reform, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies of the American University.
Which may suit reform-advocate Pryor just fine. ``My greatest fear,'' he says, ``is that we will ultimately enact a law that will be so complex, so easily misinterpreted, and with loopholes, that'' it may result in a system ``that will be as bad a system as we have now.''