The all-but-completed congressional election has seen an extraordinary proliferation of special interest groups and political action committees, or PACs. Almost certainly they are in for a careful reexamination after the election.
They got a big push in 1974 in an amendment to the federal election law by Congress, designed to limit the role of organized pressure groups, particularly corporations and trade unions. But, as so often happens, the reform measure didn't perform as expected. Instead of reducing the power and number of the groups it was aimed against, it vastly increased them. Its good side was that it did end secret gifts in stuffed envelopes and put the whole business into the open.
The PACs system is one of the fastest growing things in American politics. PACs have flourished while political parties have declined. Theoretically in America there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, but often it depends less on party platform than on the candidate himself. The modern candidate does know however on which side of the bread the PAC butter is spread.
There is a difference between the direct and indirect appeal. In a frank appeal Lockheed the other day had a two-page advertisement in Newsweek showing an expanse of ocean with submarines presumably lurking underneath. ''In 1942 we took a beating from a handful of enemy subs,'' it warned and added, ''Today, we have to be ready for 377 unfriendly subs.'' Lockheed boasts it manufactures ''the world's most advanced antisubmarine aircraft.''
This is a straightforward appeal that illustrates the growing intrusion of issues of public policy into everyday life. The PACs apply their pressure in a more indirect way. You make your contribution to a fund, a corporation or other legal entity and, within limits, it can make political contributions to an individual candidate. By one estimate PACs will distribute $240 million this year. Could this undermine representative democracy?
The consumers group Common Cause recently tabulated this year's initial PAC contributions to congressmen. It examined those given to 12 manufacturers of MX missiles. It found that donations this year more than double those of 1980. Such relationships can obviously be important; for example, last July opponents of a billion-dollar authorization bill for the missile system failed to block it by only three votes, 209 to 212.
Back in 1972 there were only 113 PACs. In 1980 they had grown to 2,551, and now there are 3,149. Under the law a PAC may give a candidate $5,000 both in a primary and in the general election whereas an individual is limited to $1,000 in each. The Supreme Court came to the aid of PACs in 1976: it ruled that parts of the federal election law violated the right of free speech; that candidates may personally use as much of their own money as they wish; and that unaffiliated groups can spend what they want on advocacy campaigns so long as the candidate himself is not involved.
This reporter sent in $5 as a stockholder the other day to United Technologies, the big conglomerate at Hartford, Conn., (Otis elevators to Sikorsky helicopters). I wanted to see how it worked. I was informed that ''our Political Action Committee,'' UTCPAC, ''. . . supports candidates or incumbents who recognize the needs of a strong national defense and of the business community particularly in businesses like ours.'' My new relationship gave me a clubby feeling. For 1982, I am told we have ''set a fund-raising goal of $250, 000.'' My, that's a lot of money.
Others spend more, though. The National Conservative PAC (NCPAC) known as ''Nickpac,'' is one of the biggest. Another is associated with conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina; it is the Congressional Club PAC and may raise $10 million.
So what's the future for this extraordinary new political phenomenon? I don't know. But I shall try to keep in touch with it all through UTCPAC.