CONGRESSIONAL efforts to reform the finance laws that govern political campaigns take a small step forward this week. Later this month they are likely to take an even bigger step ahead. In both cases the action will occur in the House of Representatives. The middle of this week, Republican House members plan to introduce 10 separate proposals for reforms.
These are restrictions of various kinds, from franking privileges to contributions from political-action committees to ``soft money'' - contributions that are legal but outside the scope of current restrictions on spending. Later this month the full House is likely to begin formal consideration of campaign finance legislation, says House Republican leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois.
House Democratic leaders would let the Senate act first if it could get ready this month, Representative Michel indicated at a Monitor breakfast for Washington reporters. But because that is unlikely, the House is expected to go first.
Political scientists say the driving force behind this year's consideration of reform in campaign financing is growing public concern about congressional ethics in an election year. The public senses that the huge amounts of money raised from political contributions are in part responsible for actions by some members of Congress that at best are questionable, and give contributors an unfair advantage in influencing politicians.
Public concern stems in sizable part from the well-publicized ethical problems faced by several members of Congress, especially the five senators who received financial considerations from Charles Keating, who ran the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan.
When they face the voters in November, members of Congress want to be able to say that they took some action intended to reduce political influence that stems from campaign contributions - and perhaps to reduce the cost of campaigns themselves.
On the Senate side of Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are negotiating to see if they can reach a consensus on major elements of campaign finance reform.
This approach parallels the consensus-building approach that Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine also took earlier this year on clean air. On that issue, Senate Democrats and Republicans and representatives of the White House ultimately reached agreement; and the Senate approved their compromise.
Proponents of campaign finance reform hope for similar results this time.
Representative Michel says the purpose of introducing the 10 reform proposals into the House this week is to improve Republican leverage in shaping the final bill that the House will vote on. Republicans will try to amend the Democratic proposal with as many of their 10 bills as Democratic leaders will allow.
House Republicans long ago introduced a wide-ranging reform proposal, but they know that in a floor vote Democrats would defeat it handily on a largely party-line vote.
In general, Democrats want to put a legal ceiling on the soaring cost of campaigns. They hold that raising the amount of money needed for a campaign requires far too much time and effort, and gives donors unfair advantages over average Americans in having their views and problems heard.
Republicans, in the minority in both houses, say a cap would benefit more Democrats than Republicans. They note that incumbents have a huge advantage to start with. In the past two election campaigns some 98 percent of House members who sought reelection won. Republicans say limiting the amount of money a candidate could spend would prevent lesser-known challengers, more often than not Republicans who are not incumbents, from making their names and viewpoints well-enough known to voters to be electable.
``I'll be the first to admit we're spending too much,'' says Michel, ``but that isn't the only issue here.'' He mentions uncounted soft money and PACs, among other problems.
Michel suggests that a possible solution to the high cost of campaigning is to require that half the money raised for each campaign be from the district a senator or representative represents. It is not a new idea, and it meets stiff opposition from liberal members of Congress who, Michel claims, raise a lot of money from New York, Hollywood, and other affluent out-of-district areas.