One of the themes of the 97th Congress has been the steady erosion of the power of the business lobbying community to represent broad corporate interests.

On the rise well before Ronald Reagan won the presidency, and ascendant from January to August 1981, the political arm of business by the end of 1982 no longer is able to dictate the content of tax legislation. Instead, it has been forced to adopt a defensive stance, fighting to hold off adverse tax hikes.

In sharp contrast to the days less than two years ago when legislation of major importance to business was given first priority, two bills are pending in the lame-duck session -- regulatory "reform" and the shortening of the capital gains holding period. Neither is assured of passage.

A host of corporate-interest bills are moving through Congress, sponsored by the beer industry, shippers, pesticide manufacturers, credit companies, the dairy industry and office equipment dealers.

These measures, however, generally are targeted to specific industry groups and special interests. They are not directed to business as a whole, as were the 1981 tax bill cutting depreciation schedules for all businesses making capital investments, or the regulatory reform bill changing procedures for issuing major regulations affecting industry.

In addition, the special-interest bills pending before Congress are being tied up by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and other opponents who hope their parliamentary stalling tactics force abandonment of the measures in the closing days of the 97th Congress.

The decline in the stature of business has been significant, but it has not fallen anywhere near the low point of 1974-1975, when Watergate-related disclosures of corrupt campaign practices and foreign bribery resulted in what corporate lobbyists described as a "virulent antibusiness atmosphere."

"Congress has modified its support of pro-business legislation encouraging savings and investment," said John Albertine, director of the American Business Conference, "but we are still a long way away from 1975."

Albertine also argued that most Democrats have abandoned legislation that seeks to redistribute income in favor of measures designed to encourage economic growth, which in turn "is favorable to business."

Richard Rahn, chief economist for the Chamber of Commerce, contended that Congress has made a lasting conversion to business' side. The current critical posture on Capitol Hill, he said, is a temporary "shift of attention" resulting from unemployment, the recession and the record high deficits.

"If the economy starts moving again, there will be a renewed attempt" to gain approval of legislation encouraging capital formation for corporate growth, he argued.

In fact, there has been a sharp decline in support among both Republicans and Democrats for the basic corporate argument that economic growth will result from sharp reductions in taxes and by elimination of restrictive regulatory controls.

Support for the regulatory reform legislation has ebbed. In contrast to last year, when the Senate passed the regulatory reform bill by 94 to 0, the business lobby is no longer strong enough to be sure of House action, or to cause serious problems at home for members who voted against business.

This weakening of political muscle represents a major fall-off from the latter days of the administration of Jimmy Carter and the first year of the Reagan administration.

During the Carter administration, the business lobby was, despite Democratic majorities in both branches of Congress, able to kill pro-union labor law reform legislation, and to win passage of a near halving of the capital gains tax rate in 1978, the first time in at least a generation that Congress passed a tax cut skewed to the rich and upper middle-income taxpayers.

This was followed in 1981 with a business tax cut that was so favorable that in many cases, corporations would not only have all taxes eliminated on the profits from new investments, but also would get what amounted to a tax subsidy.

The political reaction to the tax cut, and its subsequent failure to produce an economic revival, contributed to the election results in which 26 Republicans lost House seats. The consequent intense concern among congressional Republicans to avoid renewed charges of advocating inequitable legislation has resulted in the effective rejection of the conservative drive for a flat tax that would shift the tax burden from the wealthy to middle-income taxpayers.