THE PACS ARE taking over our politics, right? Look at the numbers -- they raised $189 million in the last two-year pre- election cycle, 49 percent more than in the previous two-year cycle, and without the allure of a presidential campaign. Look at Elizabeth Drew in The New Yorker: "The basis on which our system of representative government was supposed to work is slipping away . . . What is at stake is the idea of representative government, the soul of this country."

Strong stuff. But is it accurate? Look, too, at the actual legislative results of the 97th Congress. In Congress, it turns out, the impact of PAC money was not quite so drastic, at least not on issues where you might expect it to count the most.

The evil effect most commonly laid to massive campaign giving is that it prompts elected officials to favor "wealthy special interests" -- usually business -- and to ignore the general electorate. "The interests run this city," an observer is quoted approvingly by Ms. Drew; "everyone knows it."

To business veterans of our most recent legislative wars, such rhetoric must seem surreal. They know that the real story of the 97th Congress was how frequently the new business givers lost big battles on the Hill. This happened despite not only all the money PACs have been handing out, but also despite an impressive array of supporting assets -- the most anti-government president in memory, a conservative public mood, and a new Republican majority in the Senate.

The most revealing case in point has already been well publicized -- the failure of the 97th Congress to rewrite the Clean Air Act. This grand-daddy of all regulatory laws, by far the most pervasive and most complained-about federal burden on American business, expired in fiscal 1982. Shortly before the end of the 97th Congress, Congress reauthorized the act with no substantive changes.

In this case business interests could target a high-visibility issue of acknowledged national importance, mobilize a massive coalition -- virtually the entire manufacturing sector -- pour PAC dollars into relevant campaigns, and come away with nothing.

Moreover, in this case business lobbyists had the support of the president, and the president's party controlled the Senate. In the Democratic House, business had the support of Committee Chairman John Dingell from Detroit, who was particularly concerned about environmental controls affecting his constituents, the auto manufacturers. And finally, industry interests had respectable points to make. Even moderate environmentalists concurred that portions of the act were rigid and inefficient.

Why did this formidable campaign go for naught? In part, the defeat can be ascribed to the White House's preoccupation with other issues. But, in greater part, Congress was simply responding to the voters, who -- by overwhelming majorities, according to the polls -- wanted to keep the Clean Air Act or toughen it.

The Clean Air Act epic was the most notorious, but hardly the only setback for business lobbyists seeking to shrink environmental programs. The Clean Water Act was similarly reauthorized intact before the guillotine of expiration fell. And in a showdown vote on the House floor last August, agribusiness and chemical interests were beaten in an effort to loosen the Fungicide, Insecticide, and Rodenticide Act ("FIFRA") by a vote of 250 to 154.

The FIFRA episode is especially interesting because the key vote rejected provisions adopted and reported by the House Agriculture Committee. This result contradicted a frequently heard piece of conventional wisdom -- that the PAC explosion has supplanted traditional processes by persuading members to defer to their contributors rather than committee recommendations, causing many more bills to be rewritten on the floor. Here there was a floor rewrite -- but over the vehement opposition of a potent industry coalition.

Outside the environmental area, anti-regulatory lobbying juggernauts also failed in some surprising instances. The American Medical Association's PAC, plus state medical association PACs, spent over $4 million, more than any single industry, and rounded up a majority of the House to sponsor its bill to exempt professional associations from the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission. But the Republican Senate voted the bill down, 59 to 37, by 10 more votes than the previous Senate defeated the same measure in 1980.

The Regulatory Reform Bill, designed to overhaul procedures in all federal agencies, was promoted by a coalition including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business and numerous one-industry trade associations. Though it passed the Senate unanimously in 1981, regulatory reform died in the House during the 1982 lame-duck session.

Outside the regulatory area, possibly the single most interesting index of fading business influence was the passage of Sen. Bob Dole's Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Dole loaded his bill with provisions inimical to such potent industries as banking, drugs, oil, timber, autos, mining and life insurance. Approximately half of the $100 billion tax increase prescribed by the bill fell on business. Thinking about that prospect after observing the Gucci-clad lobbyists outside a Senate mark-up session one night last July, Dole said: "They'll be barefoot by the morning."

Dole saw that repealing business tax benefits had become good politics, and he played the issue for all it was worth.

Business interests are unlikely to fare better in the 98th Congress. Regulatory expansion is a real possibility on several environmental issues. On the tax side, a second major effort to recapture revenue losses caused by the 1981 tax bill is widely expected.

What has happened? Why has business started losing some big ones on the Hill just when election returns and campaign spending statistics indicate it should be nearly invincible?

Some answers are easy: Business victories in the late '70s were defensive. Now business interests have learned that it's much harder to pass laws than to block them. Always a basic rule of life on Capital Hill, this political inertia has been compounded by the post- 1974 budget process, which absorbs so much congressional time and energy that little is left over for other major initiatives. The 97th Congress was by far the least productive since World War II.

Moreover, large coalitions of business lobbyists have sometimes proved too unwieldy to focus their members' political strength or make necessary compromises quickly enough to be effective.

But these paradoxical shifts in business fortunes over the past decade cannot be so simply explained. The key is to recognize that the recently expanded business pressure on Congress, including the PAC explosion, has been less a cause of than a response to long- term trends in public policy affecting business.

Obviously, there is nothing new about efforts by business (and labor) interests to bend public policy their way through campaign contributions. But in the more distant past, systematic giving centered in a distinctive group of interests -- shipping, banking, energy, trucking, certain branches of agriculture, and others. These industries tended to be heavily regulated -- at their own insistence and for their own benefit. The industries helped elect the committee members who voted them subsidies, antitrust exemptions, or other prized market protections.

The recent upsurge in business political giving has come in large part from sectors once comparatively aloof from politics, particularly blue chip manufacturers who long considered themselves to be "unregulated." They viewed government as an occasional intrusion, not a strategic aid or a direct threat to profits.

Then came the regulatory revolutehemention of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Beginning with Ralph Nader's 1966 National Highway Traffic Safety Act, continuing through the Truth- in-Packaging, Truth-in-Lending, Clean Air, Clean Water, Consumer Product Safety, Toxic Substances Control, Surface Mining, and other laws, Congress and (mainly Republican) presidents piled on mainstream American businesses far greater regulatory burdens than they had ever faced before.

Business woke up slowly. The Clean Air Act itself passed the Senate in 1970 by a vote of 73 to 0. But the new regulation ultimately made itself felt.

The turning point was the fight over the Nader concept of a federal Consumer Protection Agency. This would police all the other regulatory agencies, and prevent them from becoming "captured" by the industries they regulated. An unprecedented coalition was put together to fight -- and, in 1977, ultimately to defeat -- the CPA bill.

That effort served as a foundation for many subsequent anti-regulatory lobbying strategems, organizations, and campaigns, including the increasing use of PACs and campaign money. The link appears explicit in the fact that the chairman of Armstrong World Industries heads the Business-Industry Political Action Committee ("BIPAC"), the acknowledged bellwether in channeling business contributions to deserving candidates; the same company supplied the leadership for the anti-Consumer Protection Agency coalition of the mid-1970s.

The 1982 cresting of the anti-regulatory tide demonstrated a fundamental political fact: The public has not lost its underlying commitment to health, safety and environmental protection reflected in the regulatory laws passed a decade ago. When the basic integrity of those laws seemed threatened, a backlash was triggered. The backlash was too strong for Congress to ignore in many cases, regardless of how generous PACs had been in their efforts to win votes for deregulation.

Seen in this light, the multiplication of business PACs at this point in our history may seem more intelligible and, perhaps, less menacing. It is fair to say, as one frequently reads, that the new pattern of political giving has "distorted" electoral results and legislative behavior in some important instances. But the new donors of political money failed to shake the statutory framework of the new federal regulation of business, especially regarding health, safety, and environmental issues, because public opinion opposed them.

Where is the campaign finance issue headed now? Despite the increasing public interest, a sweeping new reform law seems unrealistic, at least without a big scandal. Nevertheless, the legislative impact of business PACs should continue to decline, not least because other liberal interests will now be encouraged by last year's successes of those who fought to protect the basic environmental laws. And we can expect the business PACs themselves to adopt more cauitious stratgegies in light of anti-PAC publicity and the increasing sensitivity of many members of Congress to the appearance of PAC domination.

At least some of the business, trade, and professional groups that threw so much money away in failed attempts to win their way in the last Congress are now likely to reevaluate their tactics. The discovery that they cannot buy total victory will persuade many of them to work instead for practical compromises with regulators, legislators, and opposed lobbying groups -- compromises that reflect both the needs of business and the public's clear insistence on basic regulation and environmental protection.