Every election year, political action committees (PACs) grow richer and the outcries against them get louder. But despite charges that these groups - tied to business, labor, and ideologies - are buying lawmakers, Congress takes no action to halt their growth.
''It's always difficult to change laws to limit special interests,'' concedes Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin, one of the leaders in a major reform effort in the House. Last week he found how difficult the battle will be.
Mr. Obey and 114 cosponsors are backing a bill to limit the PAC contributions to House candidates and provide public financing for campaigns. The so-called ''Clean Campaign Act of 1983'' has spawned a bizare political coalition of opponents, even by Washington standards.
Former Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, the Minnesotan whose anti-Vietnam-war campaign for president helped topple President Johnson, recently announced that he will fight the bill, which he called an attack on freedom of speech.
He has two highly unlikely allies. The chief organizer of the opposition campaign is John T. Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and one of the top publicists for the New Right. The third member of the trio is Stewart R. Mott, a self-confessed ''political fat cat'' who has funded major liberal Democratic campaigns for the past decade with his personal fortune.
''There's a big hue and cry, as if there was something terrible about the existence of 3,000 PACs,'' said the flamboyant Mr. Mott at the launching ceremony for the new alliance. He argued that special-interest money has always been present but that PACs make it more identifiable.
''Special-interest money is going to find a way to do (its) thing regardless'' of reforms, according to Mott.
Mr. Dolan, whose PAC spent more than $9 million in the last election cycle, chided the Obey reformers for asking ''that Americans pay the bill for greedy congressmen'' to be reelected.
As proposed, the counter-reform effort will be much like the negative election campaigns that NCPAC has run, with varying success, against liberal incumbents. It would include TV and radio ads in the home districts of the two chief cosponsors of the bill, Obey and Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa.
Just to make sure all of the lawmakers can see the ads, the group also is targeting a supporter who is close to Washington, Democratic Rep. Michael D. Barnes, whose district is a Maryland suburb of the capital.
The theory, according to Dolan, is that ''under the heat of their constituents, they will see the light.''
Congressman Obey has registered a mixed response to the challenge. He denounced it as an attempt at ''intimidation'' but added, ''I personally welcome the opportunity,'' because the campaign financing system he proposes is similar to the one used in Wisconsin.
As proposed, the campaign reform bill would limit a House candidate to accepting no more than $90,000 from PACs per election. Candidates with great personal wealth would be restrained from trying to ''buy'' victory by a limit of
Candidates who agree to abide by the spending limits would receive federal matching money for every donation of under $100 from an individual. Moreover, the bill would give protection from the negative campaigns of groups such as Dolan's NCPAC. A candidate who is attacked could have either free television time or additional federal money.
The reform, which will probably come to a vote next fall in the House, is aimed at cutting special-interest power in elections and thus in Congress.
''I don't think there is a more important issue,'' Representative Barnes told reporters. ''You can't be here a week without being convinced that something has got to be done on this . . . to get the evil influence of big money off the floor of the House of Representatives.''
The most apparent special-interest groups, the PACs, are adding to their treasuries and their power with each election. They raised nearly $200 million and poured some $83 million into congressional races for the fall '82 elections, by far the biggest contribution ever.
Although no one can measure exactly what favorable legislation money can buy, it is widely acknowledged that it guarantees the donators access to the lawmakers. And at the least, the PAC money has escalated the campaign financing race. It can now cost millions to win a job paying less than $70,000.
Randy D. Huwa, a lobbyist for Common Cause, a self-styled citizens' interest group, argues that public financing for congressional races would be worth the cost. ''The price that we pay'' in special-interest legislation such as tax preferences and special-interest subsidies ''far exceeds the cost of a public financing system,'' he says. ''I think it's a bargain.''
But PACs have some defenders beyond the McCarthy-Dolan-Mott group. University of Southern California Prof. Herbert E. Alexander issued a study earlier this year citing their value. He pointed out that PACs increase participation in the political process, give individuals a stronger voice in politics, and serve as ''a safeguard against undue influence by the government or by the media.''