There is a flurry in the Senate gallery, where a group of wealthy western farmers and their lawyers is watching the debate. The Senate is trying to decide if these landowners will be exempted from legislation putting sharp limits on the amount of federal irrigation water they can receive.

Their champion is Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), arguing mightily against Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who views the exemption and the water subsidy with some outrage.

In the gallery, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) is talking with the farmer-lobbyists. In the hallway, one of their lawyers is drafting language that Cranston will use to make his case. A Cranston aide runs relays between the gallery and the Senate floor.

Finally there's a vote. Nelson wants to table -- that is, set aside -- the complex exemption formula Cranston has developed for growers in the Kings River area of California, but Nelson is defeated handily.

One of the principal beneficiaries would be the J. G. Boswell Co., which has 88,000 acres in Kings River and 20,000 acres in the Kern River district, which also would be exempt.

Boswell, the world's largest cotton grower, has a PAC, a political action committee that gives money to candidates. This year and last it gave $30,650 to 19 senators, 17 Republicans and two Democrats, plus $11,000 more to two GOP campaign operations. Among the recipients were Boschwitz ($2,000), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who originally sponsored the exemption ($1,500), and Frank Church (D-Idaho), who supported it ($2,500).

On the crucial vote, 15 of the 19 supported the exemption that saved the Boswell empire. Three others were absent, but left word they favored the exemption. The 19th was inspecting hurricane damage at home and left no word of his position.

Such scenes are not everyday occurrences on Capitol Hill. But in one meeting room after another almost every day, special interests -- rich and poor, business and labor -- are pleading their causes, which in every instance are calculated to make their lives fuller and more bountiful by starting, changing or stopping a program.

That always has been the way in the national legislature, but this 96th Congress has the earmarks of being something special. It has received more special-interest campaign money than any other. And it has responded to special needs with abandon.

Examples are legion:

A Senate reclamation law revision exempts the big irrigators in the West from acreage limitations, continuing hefty tax subsidies. A House committee relieves asbestos producers of sharing the cost of removing their cancer-causing insulation from schoolhouses. A 2-year-old strip mine control law is dealt a stunning blow in the Senate under pressure from coal companies.

Hospital cost-containment legislation is bottled up by a powerful hospital-doctor lobby that contributed more than $1.6 million to campaigners in 1977-1978. Sugar producers are voted a 15.8 cents-a-pound price increase and milk producers' price supports are extended by a House committee.

Sand and gravel and limestone pit operators win an exemption from safety training requirements. The House waters down a windfall profits tax proposed on the affluent oil industry, whose PACs spent better than $1 million in the last two congressional elections. Almost without raising a finger, the automobile industry is saved by the House from installing airbags as safety devices in future fleets. Energy committees vote to give oil companies the lead role in operating government-financed synthetic fuel plants. It is reversed later, but a House subcommittee tried to stop the Federal Trade Commission from investigating and regulating abuses in several dozen of the country's most influential industries.

The list goes on, and the 96th Congress is not yet at its halfway point. Money is an element that moves legislative mountains, but obviously not the only one.

This Congress is beset by a furor over the real and imagined excesses of federal regulatory agencies. It is beset by forceful single-issue lobbies -- antiabortion, school prayer, Panama Canal, strategic arms control. It is a younger crowd, with more than half the House here two terms or less, more than half the Senate here one term or less. It is a Congress recognized as being more loyal to home district constituencies and self-interest than to national party platforms or the White House. Structural reforms have made legislative power more diffuse, spreading subcommittee chairmanships to more members, and in the view of some, giving more openings to more pleaders.

But the 96th Congress, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, is a congress particularly indebted to organized contributors who in 1977 and 1978 flooded a record $35.1 million into House and Senate campaigns.

That figure, according to the Federal Election Commission, is more than 50 percent higher than contributions made in 1975-1976 by political action committees (PACs); nearly triple the $12.5 million given in the previous biennium.

There are at least 535 opinions in Congress about the meaning of those figures. Some of the 535 House and Senate members think there is a correlation between campaign contributions and the way a legislator votes. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), for example, evokes Mark Twain in calling this "the best congress money can buy . . . awash in a sea of special-interest lobbying."

Others consider that preposterous. They welcome the money funneled into their campaigns by the increasing numbers of corporation-sponsored PACs. They see it as a natural evolution of "participatory democracy," a development that implies nothing about influence-peddling.

Listen to Rep. John H. Rousselot (R-Calif.): "More PAC money? So what? It is just that more groups realize they can have an input. Free-market PACs are becoming stronger and that is healthy."

A more moderate view than Kennedy's comes from Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.). "I don't think there is more than the usual degree of responsiveness to special interests this year," he said, "but I have been frustrated by this Congress, to an extent, because of a natural swing to conservatism. To call it 'gutless,' as some have, is pretty harsh."

Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) worries about things like the pay raise, the free-and-easy spirit toward legislative malefactors and the tone that creates.

She told the House last week it had acted like "a pickpocket" in passing a pay raise without a roll call. Afterward, a member criticized her "offensive" remark. "We need to be offended more around here," she responded.

"We dodge reform. And we've got to have financial reform," Fenwick said. "Congress itself is terribly reluctant to make changes that will bring a cleansing of the stable. But the public, too, has to have higher standards for the people they elect. Why, we reelected convicted felons around here. What does that say?"

Fenwick would start by putting stricter limits on the amount of money that PACs can contribute to a candidate and limits on the total a candidate may accept from PACs. Such legislation is nearing a vote in the House.

"In my mind there is no question that there is a connection between these contributions and votes," she said. "I have sought votes, and members have told me they received such-and-such an amount of money from one of these groups and they could not vote with me."

From the outside, Fred Wertheimer, senior vice president of Common Cause, which lobbies for campaign-finance reform, sees nuances that complicate the equation.

"No question -- the power of the special interest is growing and in that sense we are becoming a special-interest state. The PAC is the most visible and symbolic evidence of that," Wertheimer said.

"Ours is not a barter system, but a system of relationships and dependencies. Campaign money becomes a very important factor. The power and philosophy of a narrow, focused approach brought by the PAC's is growing."

Possibly this week, the House will take up a PAC-revision bill that sets tighter limits on the amounts the groups can contribute. "It is an absolutely pivotal fight," Wertheimer said, "because this is a bill designed to contain the system. The PACs contribute more than anything to fragmentation, and what we are rapidly losing is our ability to balance their needs with the overall common good."

But Rousselot's key words are important -- input, stronger, free market. A California colleague of his, Rep. John L. Burton, a Democrat, agrees those are key words and thinks that is the problem.

"There's a helluva lot of money in a helluva lot of PACs," he said. "People may tend to vote with their financial supporters. Contributors' voices will be heard, where the average citizen may not be heard. With that access comes influence."

Burton again: "I see this Congress going nowhere in a big hurry. There's a retreat on public-interest issues. We keep going backwards, giving benefits to these special interests and letting the people suck eggs."

He remembered a line from the speeches of Harold Hughes, the former Iowa senator. "Hughes used to say there are no solutions -- but seek them lovingly. I think that's where I am," Burton said.

There is a problem with the pat theories about money, the clout of special interests, the shadow of the big companies that seek, as John Rousselot says, "to get the government off our backs and out of our pockets."

It has something to do with freedom and not being protected from ourselves by government rulemakers.

The great airbag controversy is an example.

Last week, the House voted to prevent the use of airbags as part of the automatic crash protection federal standards will require in 1982 model automobiles. Automatic safety belts are the principal alternative to the bags.

The controversy has been intense for several years. For one thing, airbags would increase car prices, but no one really knows how much because of wildly conflicting estimates. As the likelihood of an airbag rule neared, the industry's cost calculations rose spectacularly. But for another thing, thousands of miles of tests had shown the bags to be useful and, when they were installed in a few production-line models in the mid-1970s, were shown to have saved lives in serious crashes.

Detroit, however, is represented in part by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). Autos are made in Detroit and, just as Dingell led previous fights against tighter air-pollution controls for autos, he led this year's fight against the airbag.Dingell did not attack the safety standards, nor was he bluntly against the airbag. He argued that more tests were needed.

"To propose a study or more tests in Congress is like asking a puppy if he wants his stomach rubbed," said Ralph W. Hoar Jr., head of a large coalition of insurance, consumer and labor groups that lobbied for the airbags.

Dingell won by 42 votes. The industry, all sides agree, kept an extremely low profile before the vote -- little or no lobbying.Auto companies have PACs and so do auto dealers, who gave $975,000 to campaigners in 1977-1978. Maybe little lobbying was needed.

The final vote didn't follow form. It put some traditional liberals against airbags; some conservatives for airbags; legislators from auto districts both for and against.

A generally liberal member who voted against the airbags, Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.), talked about that. Jacobs had just finished a phone conversation with a voter in Indianapolis who was saying Hoosiers are so fed up with government that they would not pay their taxes if it were not for withholding by the Internal Revenue Service.

"Actually," Jacobs said, "the only lobbyist I heard from was the Allstate Insurance Co. That's my company. If I were buying a car, I would buy it with an airbag. I worked my way through law school as a cop and I scraped too many people off windshields . . . But my vote on this was based on my belief that at some point, decisions of this kind still have to rest on the individual."

A House vote such as the one on airbags, in Jacobs' view, is a clearer reflection of popular feeling around the country than allusions to PACs or lobbies. "This Congress mirrors the population as a whole -- it is angry, at sorts with each other, muddled," he said.

Other-worldly, too.The House at the moment was talking about giving itself a pay raise, lifting its members even higher into the country's top 1 percent income bracket. "It is like Louis XIV," Jacobs siad. "They're storming the Bastille and he's thinking about what doily to put on the table."

The Bastille allusion is not inappropriate for a bright, autumn Monday morning, as one more skirmish in the taking of Capitol Hill gets under way.

Taxis disgorge a sapper force of lawyers and executives. Armed with attache cases, uniformed in three-piecers, they pour into the Senate Finance Committee for one more assault on the Federal Treasury.

Their quarry is the taxation subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind.-Va.), which is considering seven "miscellaneous" tax bills.

Miscellaneous, perhaps, but as a whole they mean tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks for their beneficiaries. Translated: The dollar I don't pay is the dollar you must pay.

The hearing room is jam-packed, all seats taken, a line outside the door. Virtually all are pleaders, for four hours telling woeful stories of need, seeking an exemption here, a break there.

They are real estate agents, insurance men, trackers, direct sellers, contractors, franchisers, home-builders, foresters, incinerator builders, small businessmen, medical professors, tax executives, even Shriners and Masons.

Byrd and subcommittee members are sympathetic, which is half the battle. It means most of the witnesses are on the way to getting what they want.

In a sense, what it comes down to is leaving Don Lubick and Bob McIntyre against the world. Lubick, an assistant secretary of the treasury, flatly opposes four of the seven bills and wants the fifth modified.

McIntyre is the only other "public" witness this day. He is from Public Citizen's Tax Reform Research Group. In his five-minute time allotment he covers the most costly of the bills -- which, naturally, he opposes.

While other witnesses clap each other's backs, pump each other's hands and mutter "good job," no one is there to congratulate McIntyre. He is last on the list, most everyone else has left.

The New Sappers have come, perhaps conquered, and gone.