Dishing out millions in campaign cash, political action committees, or PACs, are the new players in the Washington political game. Are they ''the national scandal of the '80s,'' as Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer labels them?
Or less alarmingly, are PACs ''a supplement to lobbying,'' as Herbert Alexander, director of the Citizens Research Foundation at the University of Southern California, calls them?
Menace or not, PACs - formed by labor, corporation, trade, and ideologically oriented groups to funnel money into campaigns - have come under intense scrutiny as the 1984 political cycle begins.
''PACs have become an institutionalized means for using money to influence congressional decisions,'' Mr. Wertheimer charges. ''They are, practically by definition, intended to affect public policy decisions. And they do.
''They do so well, in fact, that more and more interest groups have bought into the PAC system. In 1974 PACs gave $12.5 million to congressional candidates. By the 1982 elections, their contributions had reached $80 million, a 650 percent increase in just eight years.
''PACs have become the symbol and the driving force for the ascendancy of the special interest over the general interest in our society.''
But the jury is still out on PAC influence, say other campaign finance experts like Mr. Alexander.
''PAC money in '82 made up some 28 percent of income for House and Senate candidates,'' Alexander observes. ''We don't know whether this constitutes 'undue influence.'
''PACs, like individuals, try to give money to congenial individuals. On major public issues I see no relation between PAC contributions and votes in Congress.''
He adds, however, that on issues hidden from public view - technical issues, or those in which a congressman's district is not involved - ''he may respond to lobbying by PAC people in a way he might not otherwise.''
''But those issues are going to be there, PACs or not,'' Alexander says. ''PACs are a supplement to lobbying.''
''When Congress in 1974 limited amounts individuals and PACs could give for congressional campaigns, it set a policy to broaden the financial base - to raise smaller amounts from more contributors,'' Alexander says. ''The law changed the 'big giver' to the 'big solicitor.' It put a premium on lists of individuals. A candidate could no longer get $50,000 from a Stewart Mott, but he could get $1,000 from 50 of his friends. PACs are intermediaries. It's only natural they've become important to campaigns.''
The current PAC debate lacks historical perspective, says Michael Malbin, a Catholic University expert on campaign finance. PACs originated as political organizations of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the early 1940s. Nonlabor PACs grew after a new campaign finance law took effect in 1975.
But special-interest giving has been a longtime fixture in American political life.
Back in the 1790s, Aaron Burr worked to ''set up an anti-Federalist state bank that would lend Democrats money to buy property, thus qualifying them to vote,'' Mr. Malbin observes in the latest issue of Public Opinion magazine. In the early 19th century, kickbacks from bureaucrats in patronage positions were ''an indirect form of partial public financing.''
The Tillman Act of 1907, supposed to prohibit direct corporate contributions to federal campaigns, was ineffective. ''Executives simply took raises for themselves and made campaign contributions as individuals,'' Malbin says. ''And in the 1928 presidential election, more than 30 percent of Democratic and Republican money came in contributions of $5,000 or more from bankers, stockbrokers, manufacturers, and people in the mining, oil, railroad, and public utilities businesses.''
Malbin says PACs are more of a ''condition'' than a ''problem'' - a condition that's both good and bad, and likely to persist, while a problem implies something that has solutions.
''PACs do not represent everybody, of course,'' Malbin notes. ''Specifically, poor people and the politically unorganized are left out of the current campaign picture. So would they be with either an unregulated environment or with any approach based on a strategy of limits.'' To equalize opportunities for campaign giving, vouchers or 100 percent tax credits for small contributors (up to $25) could be given, he says.
The main drawback to PACs is that they reinforce the influence of lobbies already at work on Congress, further fractionalizing the legislative process, Malbin says.
Reforms should focus on ''building up the one institution within Congress that is best suited to counter decentralization - the political party,'' he says.