Lavish contributions of money to candidates have repeatedly been one of the major challenges to the American political process. At the turn of the century, reformers brought about the direct election of senators to check the great wealth that had led the Senate of that era to be dominated by ''trusts.'' Later, in the post-Watergate period, reformers enacted legislation for the direct financing of presidential elections. But little was done to limit expenditures of millions of dollars by special-interest groups in congressional races. And today some reformers and lawmakers are concerned that the individual citizen may in fact be increasingly locked out of the political process because of the growing influence of political action committees - the so-called PACs.
PACs grew out of the Watergate reforms, the intent being to allow more persons into the political process. There are now over 3,000 of them. What they have in common, other than money - lots of it - is that they tend to represent single-issue politics. And this has had its disturbing effects. For as these issue-oriented groups have gained more clout in the electoral system, they have helped erode the power of the traditional political parties. And, as politics has become increasingly driven by lone causes rather than larger community themes, it has seemed to contribute to the growing fragmentation of American society.
While it is not necessarily true that a candidate or officeholder will alter a prospective vote because of PAC contributions, it is true that an individual seeking to influence a lawmaker to vote a certain way can seldom get the lawmaker's attention as effectively as can a PAC. By law, an individual can contribute no more than $1,000 to a candidate. A PAC can directly contribute up to $10,000. Moreover, PACs acting independently of a candidate have no limitations on the amount of money they can spend on a candidate - or target against an opposing candidate. At least $80 million will be spent by PACs in the 1982 congressional races alone.
The whole notion of representative democracy - where one person's vote is equal to that of the next person - seems challenged by such a system of lavish financial contributions and resulting political influence. Although no legislative action is possible to control PAC spending in this year's election, serious thought might be given to putting some restraint on PACs in future elections. Care would have to be taken not to undermine the right of expression granted in the First Amendment (the Supreme Court, for instance, lifted limitations on personal campaign expenditures on First Amendment grounds) and to protect the concept of participatory democracy. Among some of the proposals that ought to be thoughtfully weighed:
* Limit the amount that a PAC can contribute to a candidate to $7,500 instead of $10,000.
* Limit the total amount of PAC money that can be accepted by a candidate. Legislation now before Congress would set the amount at $75,000 for House members and an amount based on population for senators.
* Amend federal communication laws to allow a candidate free broadcast time to answer charges made by a PAC.
* Tighten the current laws governing PACs to ensure that independent PACs are kept just that - rather than becoming linked with the campaigns of the candidates they support, as is now believed to occur. Accountability is essential.
* Extend public financing to congressional races, as proposed by the citizen-interest group Common Cause.
* Strengthen political parties by increasing the tax write-off allowed for campaign donations made directly to the parties.
What is needed most is constant public vigilance to ensure that lawmakers resist the appeals - or threats - of PACs. The action of North Carolina Congressman Stephen Neal is instructive. Mr. Neal refused to change a vote on the tax-cut bill in 1981 after receiving a hand-delivered note from a political action group threatening that it would actively oppose him if he did not vote for the legislation. Mr. Neal publicly took on the PAC - and voted his conscience.
PACs have a role. But this should not be at the expense of the integrity of the democratic process - and of the right of each individual to have an equal say in legislation and the future direction of the United States.