In the tournament of public esteem, American politicians are perenially unseeded, ranking either just behind domestic grave-robbers or just ahead of international child pornographers. They badly need their own anti-defamation league.

But, there is hope. A few hardy and savvy folks publicly argue that our elected politicians are more than simply the ethical equals of us nonpoliticians. Instead, it is maintained, politicians are actually morally superior as proved by the fact that they are admirably uninterested in where or from whom their campaign money is contributed. The people making this argument are quite often the same people who make the campaign contributions in behalf of some of the largest corporate and trade association political action committees (PACs) to our politicians. So, presumably they ought to know what they're talking about.

Typical of what they're talking about was the congressional testimony on behalf of one of the largest PACs, which attacked "the myth of this political quid pro quo -- money for votes -- (which) has been fanned by the media, tainting the public's perception of the political process in an unsavory and wholly unjustifiable manner."

Reflect on the saintliness here described: Can you picture your average computer programmer or newspaper columnist possessing anything like the moral fortitude that our heroic congressional candidates apparently possess and being able to accept thousands of dollars in gifts from people whom they don't know with explicit public agendas and remaining totally unaffected by such transactions? Probably not.

What makes these character references by the PAC people about candidates' idealistic indifference to dollar contributions so impressive is that most of these same folks and their organizations have argued passionately that the slightest upward calibration in the capital gains tax rate or tampering with the business lunch deduction would have economic repercussions into the 22nd century.

You've heard the pitch: Unable to deduct the full cost of the pasta salad, the captain of industry skips the business lunch where the deal would have been made to invest millions in plant expansion. For the lack of an adequate economic incentive -- the license to write off a $15 lunch -- American businessmen stopped doing business. Why can't they be less petty and more "Big Picture" like our congressional candidates who are allegedly able to ignore minor details such as thousands of dollars in contributions?

Some members of Congress are not quite as upbeat as are the PAC managers about the virtues of political fund-raising. Alarmed at the uncontrolled growth in political spending, which has seen the average cost of a winning Senate campaign increase in just eight years from $609,000 to $2.9 million along with the dependence of 163 members of Congress on PAC contributions for over half their campaign budgets, Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) has written a bill that limits the amount candidates can receive from PACs and reduces the maximum PAC contribution to a candidate from $5,000 to $3,000.

Boren, who accepts no PAC contributions himself, is no liberal bomb- thrower, and neither are some of his bill's most ardent supporters, including John Stennis (D-Miss.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). "To make representative government work the way the Framers designed it," declares Goldwater, "elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people and not to the wealth of groups who speak only for selfish fringes of the whole community."

With their legislative tunnel vision, frequently caring only how an elected representative votes on limiting imports of Korean coathangers or Belgian waffles, while simultaneouly ignoring the same member's flagrant disregard for national defense or the well-being of widows and orphans, PACs do encourage political fragmentation and can reward irresponsibility. But PACs are not the ultimate villain.

The problem, of which PACs are a part, and which makes political scandal inevitable and political corruption predictable, is the system that forces human beings who are candidates -- and neither saints nor sinners -- to spend most of their time and much of their dignity in begging for money from whomever and wherever they can find it.