There's a race of sorts under way.
One of the contestants is the drive for limits on the number of congressional terms an individual may serve. Approximately one-third of the states, accounting for the same rough share of Senate and House seats, have endorsed such limits as a way to reform Congress and end congressional careerism.More fights on the issue in state legislatures, Congress and the courts lie ahead, but the movement continues to gain ground.
The other contestant is the continuing effort to reform congressional campaign financing. The goal is to lessen the power of money in politics and especially the way campaign contributions reinforce the ability of incumbents to become lawmakers for life.
The Senate two weeks ago ended a Republican filibuster on reform legislation and, with the help of seven GOP members, passed a compromise bill that faces an uncertain future because of differences with both the House and the Clinton administration on key points.
The measure also may end up in court because of doubts about the constitutionality of provisions that ban contributions by political action committees and heavily tax campaigns exceeding "voluntary" state-by-state spending limits.
Beyond the merits of the bill that emerged was the often candid picture the debate offered as senators lamented the never-ending "money chase" for campaign contributions. Among them was Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., the floor manager of the bill, who looked at that chase from two viewpoints, beginning with that of senators.
"It leaves all of us feeling unclean, quite frankly - I know it leaves me feeling that way - to have to figure out how you can go out and panhandle wherever you can to raise money that is now necessary to win elections, to figure out how you can appeal to the special interests, to try to figure out is this a vote on which this association or that association, this management group or that labor group, is going to rate us and use it to decide to whom they will give their PAC money and their endorsement."
The senator also sought to speak for Washington lobbyists, and especially those who manage political action committee war chests, saying, "they don't like the system, either."
"Many of them have come up to me and said: 'I wish we were not under a system in which I have to hire a car and driver every night to wait for me while I run in to 10 different fund raisers a night and write out a check to somebody I do not even have a personal acquaintance with.' "
There is also a big question about the value of many of the campaign contributions that helped produce the $678 million spent on the 1992 congressional races.
I think most of those who contributed in the interests of their company, industry or union would argue that the individual case for what each would like Congress to do - or not do - is compelling enough that it doesn't need to be buttressed by campaign contributions.
All, I am sure, would add hurriedly that failing to give would mean that their cases might not be heard as often or at all. A few elections ago, a maritime industry official made essentially that point when asked why his industry at times seemed to have so little Washington clout despite the size of its campaign contributions.
But many of those who write checks for campaigns might admit, or complain, that even with the help of their contributions, their cases may be heard but not heeded fully.
That result reflects the nature of the process. The 1992 congressional campaign figures show that incumbents received 89 percent of the contributions made by political action committees, but there are no figures to indicate the extent to which many of those contributions essentially cancel each other out.
Whatever an organization gives, there's a chance, maybe even a high probability, that another organization with opposite interests may be matching or exceeding that with its contributions to other established lawmakers and perhaps even to the same ones.
Out of that process has come the crack that "we have the finest Congress money can buy." You can get all sorts of arguments about the quality of the Congress, but the price in terms of campaign contributions - and congressional salaries - keeps going up.
Some of those who support term limitations maintain that campaign finance reform is not an alternative to term limits but rather that such limits are a necessary precondition to serious reform. The House and Senate, they say, will never clean up their campaign rules until term limitations give us a whole new set of lawmakers.
If we eventually adopt term limitations, that argument had better be valid. The 100 new senators and 435 new House members will have to get elected first; most limitation formulas allow senators to run for a second term and House members to stand for re-election to five more terms.
In all, that should produce over 2,500 elections, not counting primaries, with at least two candidates looking for campaign contributions in each. Whatever else term limitations do, they won't end the money chase by themselves.