Warning flags are flying all over Washington about PACs - political action committees - that spent $188 million during the last election cycle. PAC spending on behalf of candidates grew by an average of about $56 million in the last two two-year election cycles. PACs have come under heavy criticism from the media, in Senate hearings chaired by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland, and by the public-interest lobby Common Cause. But PAC spending is expected to at least repeat its recent growth pattern in the 1983-84 political cycle already under way.
The PAC debate has at least two sides.
Critics look at the sheer volume of cash flowing into campaigns from corporations, unions, trade groups, or independent PACs, and see politicians becoming dangerously beholden to special interest groups.
Supporters say PACs have become part of the political system. PACs are essentially ''neutral'' fund-raising mechanisms available to competing sides on political issues. And the proportion of special-interest giving to political campaigns is no greater today than it has been at other periods in US history.
One clear advance, however, is in PAC-tracking.
Common Cause, major news organizations, and congressional study groups have begun buying Federal Election Commission (FEC) computer tapes and publishing how much candidates for public office and influential congressional committee chairmen receive from individual PACs.
Tracking PACs has itself become a profitable enterprise. One Washington firm is now offering, for $1,350, a four-column listing of all reported contributions for last November's Senate and House campaigns, including 100,000 PAC entries.
PACs have spawned a new breed of political professional, adept at raising funds or at advising campaign committees where funds could have the greatest impact. There are PAC directories and newsletters for the do-it-yourself campaigner or fledgling interest group.
Whatever the debate about their role, PAC men in Washington are on the move for 1984.
Propac, the Progressive Political Action Committee recently formed to counter the conservative PAC movement, has announced a $100,000 ''advertising'' campaign for 1983. Propac has singled out Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina as ''a ringleader of ultra-right-wing forces in the Congress.'' Indeed, Senator Helms is expected to face a bruising reelection challenge by North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt - a campaign that conservative and liberal forces across the nation will use as a major fund-raising vehicle.
The tit-for-tat nature of PACs has also found its way into presidential politics.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Walter F. Mondale, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, and Reubin Askew have declared they will reject PAC funds. Other contenders, however, say they will accept PAC funds. And the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will try to tap any PAC money it can get before the national convention in August 1984 for its own $5 million post-convention fund - the amount each national party can give its nominee for the final election push, when fund-raising time is scant.
''PACs serve a purpose in this town,'' says DNC spokesman Robert Neuman. ''Even for Common Cause, they're good for fund raising.''
PACs are criticized for sending large amounts of campaign cash to incumbents. But the proportion of incumbents reelected to Congress remains unchanged since the advent of PACs in 1940, observes Austin Ranney, director of political process studies for the American Enterprise Institute. Four-fifths of all incumbents in the House of Representatives were returned to office in the last two elections, the same as the average since World War II.
''Disclosure is a good thing,'' says Mr. Ranney, referring to laws that require PACs and candidates to report fund raising and spending to the FEC. ''But it's not the answer to concerns about PACs.''
Attempts to limit PAC activities, even if Congress and the President were to agree on ''ceiling legislation,'' would likely be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Ranney says.
Looking at PAC growth alone does not tell all that much about their influence , or the role they play in the American political spectrum. It is hard to assess whether liberal or conservative forces, for example, have the greater PAC clout.
Over the past six years, corporate PACs have grown faster than labor PACs, and independent PACs faster than trade organization PACs.
The recipient of the most PAC money was California GOP Senate winner Pete Wilson, with more than $1.1 million in PAC revenues. Senate candidates David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota with $975,000, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah with $878, 000, and Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas with $769,000 led in 1982 incumbent congressional PAC receipts.
How PAC spending has grown (millions of dollars) 1977-78 '79-80 '81-82* Corporate $14.9 $30.7 $42.2 Labor $18.7 $25.3 $35.8 Non-connected $16.1 $32.4 $62.2 Trade, membership, health organizations $23.6 $32.5 $41.8 Cooperative $1.9 $2.7 $3.7 Corporate (w/out stock) $0.4 $1.0 $2.0 Total $75.6 $124.6 $187.7
Source: Federal Election Commission * January through November