LATER this year, Eddie Murphy stars in "The Distinguished Gentleman," a movie that will make campaign reformers in the nation's capital chuckle.
Playing a two-bit con man, Mr. Murphy decides that if he wants to get rich, the place to do it is Congress. Marty Kaplan, the executive producer and screenwriter for the motion picture, says: "What this small-time scammer is thrilled to discover is that you can make all this money [being a congressman] and not be on the wrong side of the law."
As reformers here would say: Welcome to Washington.
Hollywood Pictures, a division of Disney Studios, is keeping the plot line of "The Distinguished Gentleman" secret, but Mr. Kaplan says it wouldn't be wrong to assume that one of the legal gold mines that the con man discovers in Washington is campaign fund raising.
Kaplan, a former White House speech writer for President Jimmy Carter, knows that every election year, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds flow through this city like a river of milk and honey. It comes from businessmen, labor unions, corporations, lobbyists, oil men, and even Hollywood stars looking for special influence with powerful lawmakers.
Yet campaign funding remains one of the most difficult areas for reformers. Politicians' constant search for campaign cash feeds the growing public skepticism about the integrity of government in the United States.
The most commonly suggested alternative - that the government fund campaigns - draws boos from many Americans, especially Republicans.
Years of debate on Capitol Hill have produced some progress. But critics say the system is still terrible. Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College, says bluntly: "The campaign finance system is a disgrace."
Dr. Cronin says that when he travels abroad, lecturing in nations like China, "the toughest thing for me to do is explain ... the role of campaign funding [and] the lack of competition in American democracy." The situation is so bad, Cronin says, that it "makes me feel squeamish as a defender of our system."
Susan Estrich, who ran Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign in 1988, and who also happens to be married to movie-producer Kaplan, worries that the power of money is "undermining the confidence which people have in their government."
For example, Ms. Estrich argues that the main reason the US fails to improve its health-care system is that millions of dollars in campaign money flows to both Democratic and Republican leaders from doctors, hospitals, businessmen, and insurance companies.
But reformers face a dilemma. It may be true that money corrupts, as they say. But money - lots of money - is necessary for campaigns. It pays for TV ads, travel, polls, organizing, and other necessities.
When Patrick Buchanan recently shook the Bush White House with his insurgent presidential campaign in New Hampshire, one of the main reasons he was successful was his rich campaign treasury. In just a few weeks, he spent an estimated $1.7 million for TV ads in New Hampshire and nearby Boston.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego warns reformers: "There is something worse than money in politics, and that's no money in politics."
Dr. Popkin explains: "You have to spend a lot of money to get to the people who don't understand as much, who are busy. It takes a lot more money to get to a single mother than it does to get to ... the rich and successful [who have] the time to pay attention to everything."
Perhaps no one in the country has made a closer study of money and politics than Herbert Alexander, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Like Popkin, Dr. Alexander emphasizes that it takes money to run good political campaigns. He estimates that elections at all levels - federal, state, and local - cost about a total of $2.7 billion in the 1987-88 election cycle.
When put into perspective, Alexander says "it's not a lot of money" for a nation of 250 million people. "It's what the two corporations with the largest advertising budgets, Phillip Morris and Procter & Gamble, spent on their advertising."
Alexander is troubled, however, by much of the public debate over campaign finance. He says the arguments are often misguided, aiming at the wrong targets. For that, he blames the media.
Alexander accuses most reporters of uncritically rewriting press releases from Common Cause, Public Citizen, and other lobbying groups trying to eliminate private contributions. Their common theme is: "Money is dirty." Their common solution is public financing.
The professor observes that many citizens believe any contribution over $25 is too much, that anything above that represents an attempt to buy influence. Yet few politicians could get their message across with limits that low.
ve got to tell you without exaggeration that there is a frontal attack on any kind of private financing of political campaigns," Alexander says. He cites the case of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. Reporters are often dismayed at the money he spends on campaigns, says Alexander.
"They call and they wring their hands and say, 'Oh, how terrible. He's spending $17 million in a state like North Carolina.' And I say, 'No, it's not. Because he's spending $6.5 million raising the money in small sums in 50 states.' I think it's admirable that he tries to get small contributions."
While not claiming to have all the answers, Alexander has at least one suggestion. He would encourage more people to make contributions, perhaps by giving a tax deduction for small donations to candidates.
Unless something is done, reformers worry that Washington will remain in the hands of special interests for years to come.