When some 600 people -- members of Congress and their staffs -- took time last month to taste the best of California's wines, they did it in the name of competitiveness.

Proponents of raising the national speed limit to 65 miles per hour debated whether it was the competitive thing to do.

A columnist even argued recently, albeit tongue-in-cheek, that America faces defeat on the international competitiveness front if men continue to parade around in sweatsuits, instead of proper dress suits.

Competitiveness, aside from its seriousness as a real issue, has become the word of choice in Washington -- a growth industry in itself and a rallying point for innumerable causes.

It has broad appeal, largely because the concept of competitiveness is so broadly defined. Party doesn't matter, nor does economic orientation. There is something here for entrepreneurs and corporate barons. Workers and managers. For those who like Japan and those who don't like Japan. For free traders and for protectionists, regulators and deregulators.

"It's the all-purpose mush word," said Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who has banned the word from memos his staff prepares for him. "That's what happens when you get a buzzword in Congress. A couple of years ago, anything you wanted you attached to the word gasohol."

Because of Bradley's edict, his staff has resorted to calling competitiveness the "C" word in correspondence to the senator.

Bradley's office is only one of many quarters in which the term is becoming devalued. When the Brookings Institution was searching for a name for its group that studies issues of competition and economic growth, it steered clear of the word altogether. It chose as a title the Center for Economic Progress and Employment.

Others feel that overuse of the term has obscured the issue itself. Robert Malott, chairman and chief executive officer of FMC Corp. in Chicago, said in a recent speech that the opportunity to enact far-reaching reforms has been squandered. "Competitiveness has proved useful, not for focusing the trade debate on long-run economic problems, but for covering protectionism with the gloss of economic reform," said Malott.

Still others, such as Center for Strategic and International Studies economist Paul Craig Roberts, don't believe there was an issue in the first place. "Most of this competitiveness hype is nothing but special pleading," said Roberts.

Issue or not, there is plenty of very real competition going on for the media attention, political advantage and, of course, the dollars that are being directed toward the question. As a result, the competitiveness industry, both within and outside of government, has spawned countless consortia, conferences and caucuses that have made full-time work out of studying America's productivity and trade problems.

By one estimate, some 2,800 groups are worrying about competitiveness.

From them have come a torrent of books, reports, recommendations, seminars, speeches and suggestions that offer sometimes similar, sometimes competing ideas on just how the problem should be solved.

Much of the selling of competitiveness is in the packaging. Everyone from lobbyists to convention organizers realizes that bemoaning the country's now legendary lack-of-competitiveness has a certain cachet about it. No agenda is complete without a liberal sprinkling of competitiveness experts.

So companies that implement advanced or automated systems on factory floors are not simply updating job descriptions and equipment. They are engaging in what is called "competitive manufacturing."

Companies that don't know how to get competitive can hire consultants or plunk down hundreds of dollars to attend meetings, seminars and conferences where legions of experts offer advice.

When the American Productivity Management Association gets together this fall in Boston, for example, the objective of its meeting will be "to examine what leading edge organizations are doing to improve their competitiveness through enhancements in product quality and customer service." Members will pay about $500 for the two-day session.

Speechwriters and givers also have found plenty of grist in the competitiveness mill.

The topic is a favorite with Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, who often prefaces his simple, seven-point plan for competitiveness with the disclaimer: "I've got a plan to make American competitive again. But then again, who doesn't? Everybody's got a plan these days. And it doesn't take a genius to put one together."

But while everyone about them seems to be losing their heads over competitiveness, a handful of hard-core scholars, politicians, business executives and specialists are trying to keep the issue a serious and focused one.

Their goal is to distill and translate the hundreds of recommendations, suggestions and proposals floating around Washington and the country into change in trade, economic and labor law and policy. In effect, to separate the competitiveness wheat from the chaff.

"The challenge is to identify the eight or nine key issues and not to allow it to be used as the legislative engine for every caboose in town," said Nancy LeaMond, executive director of the newly formed Congressional Economic Leadership Institute, a forum that brings together representatives in government, business, labor and academia.

Also trying to keep the debate focused is the Council on Competitiveness, a group of chief executives in business, labor and academia. Alan Magazine, president of the group, said one of the problems in keeping the heat on the issue is that the current economic pulse of the country -- a five-year bull market, low unemployment and low inflation -- obscure massive trade and budget deficits as well as the country's status as a debtor nation.

"It's the single most damaging and pervasive issue to hit this country," said Magazine. "We are not what we were."

There also is the possibility that the battle to toughen America's trade policy and posture might lose some of its steam if the nation's export picture improves markedly with the fall of the dollar, or if Washington simply falls in love with a new buzzword.

Champions of the competitiveness cause, however, contend the issue continues to be as important as it was when first cited by the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness in 1985 as: "The degree to which a nation can, under free and fair market conditions, produce goods and services that meet the test of international markets while simultaneously maintaining or expanding the real incomes of its citizens."

Nevertheless, Rep. Buddy MacKay (D-Fla.), one of four chairmen of the bipartisan Congressional Competitiveness Caucus, welcomes competitiveness dropouts.

"We are about to approach the root canal phase of competitiveness -- the tough issues of consuming less and producing more," MacKay said.

Others, like Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.), have been looking at the issue since the late 1970s, and remember when there wasn't a television camera in sight for some of the first hearings on the issue -- then considered "industrial policy."

TRW Inc. economist Pat Choate, whose work in the past few years has given credence to competitiveness as a serious issue, also expressed confidence that "competitiveness will have a long shelf life, like the environment. As we go into the next recession in 1989 or sooner, it will again move the issue to the forefront."

Competitiveness lives in the current trade bill, which is called the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1987. In this case competitiveness means reform and study of trade policy, as well as intellectual property rights, education programs, worker readjustment, pension portability, plant closings and other issues.

Membership in the Congressional Competitiveness Caucus has soared from about 30 regulars to 200 members of Congress.

Competitiveness also has hit home with the nation's governors, many of whom have had to wrestle with the byproducts of an economy struggling to retain its competitive edge -- plant closings, mergers, takeovers, corporate restructurings.

"We're not waiting on Washington," said Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles at the recent annual meeting of the nation's governors. Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard said states were moving aggressively on the competitiveness front because "we're the only place to field test, or reality test, these ideas." Added Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis: "We don't need another 15 bureaucracies in Washington. The real question now is how do you do this thing?"

That is a question that presidential candidates likely will face in 1988. Already party strategists say competitiveness will rank as an issue, but voters will respond to it as it applies to jobs and education.

"Competitiveness in many parts of the country is a local jobs issue," said Republican political theorist Kevin Phillips.

Alvin From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, said a decline in the trade deficit may take some of the fire out of the competitiveness debate, particularly as Democratic candidates "graduate into a next generation of economic issues."

Pollster Robert Teeter, whose work is used by Republicans, told the Economic Leadership Institute in June that economic competitiveness is not a major issue now because of the reasonable strength of the economy "but at some point in time it will be very important -- and very difficult." He said about half of Americans think the U.S. is not very competitive or not competitive at all, and they place the blame mostly on high labor costs.

Finally, far from the glare of Washington, the issue has been put under the microscope at some of the nation's colleges, universities and business schools.

Harvard Business School has been worrying about competitiveness for more than 15 years, long before the word became part of Washington's lexicon: The word itself is used five times as often now in business articles as it was in 1980.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a Commission on Industrial Productivity, a university-wide attempt to study what accounts for the country's disappointing productivity performance and how educators might help remedy the situation.

Similarly, the University of California at Berkeley, which has been active in the competitiveness debate with its Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, has formed a Consortium on Competitiveness and Cooperation to focus on the role of innovation in the economy