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.''