THE ever-higher cost of political campaigns. Ethics scandals in Congress tied to a peripatetic ``money chase'' over special interest dollars. A 98 percent incumbent reelection rate in Congress. All are part of a growing image of Congress and American politics as a club that admits only inside dealers with dollar signs in their eyes. The image is probably overdrawn. But Americans wonder how healthy the competitive two-party process is, polls indicate. There's a spirit abroad of campaign finance reform.
President Bush has dealt the first hand. His recent campaign financing proposals would eliminate most of the money given by political action committees, or PACs - interest groups that channel their money to candidates.
Most of the $160 million PACs give each year go to incumbent members of congress (read - Democrats) and Bush wants to create a more level playing field for Republican challengers.
In the public mind, PACs have become a bogeyman. Surely they need to be looked at with an eye to reform. It appears, for example, that PACs were involved in the savings and loan scandals in Texas. PACs keep incumbent seats ``safe'' by underwriting media costs.
Yet PAC-bashing shouldn't be allowed to occupy the foreground of the debate. One key issue Mr. Bush hasn't addressed is: What will replace PACs, which were set up to limit moneyed advantage?
Citizens group Common Cause suggests public financing of campaigns. Mr. Bush rejects this idea.
It's doubtful Congress will vote itself into poverty. The President will have to compromise.
Further issues: The White House would eliminate money PACs, but allow ``ideological'' PACs to exist. Corporations and unions can easily, however, declare themselves ideological. Even at present, ideo-PACs wield power. The 70 pro-Israel PACs, for example, often donate in concert, outspending their opposition 80 to 1. Little would change.
Is PAC influence that great? Every recent social science study shows that on major issues members vote primarily from party loyalty, consitituent interest, and personal principles. PACs come into play on less visible issues. (Incumbency rates have always been high - between 80 and 90 percent.)
Changes should be made in PACs. Better public financing for challengers and equal air-time on public TV are also directions to explore, as are tax deductions for citizens who give, say, $100 to the election process.