Last year when the nation's beer distributors decided to seek an exemption from antitrust laws, the first order of business was to give their lobbying drive a name that would betray no hint of special interest pleading.

Thus was born "Operation Independence."

The distributors' next semantic chore was to come up with a title for a bill that would divert attention from the anticompetitive designs of their legislation.

Thus was born the "Malt Beverage Interbrand Competition Act."

In the 10 months since the bill was introduced, Operation Independence has been moving along "at the speed of light," in the approving phrase of this month's Beverage World, an industry trade publication.

Save for its lofty name, the lobbying campaign is typical of the special interest "grass roots" efforts that have become commonplace in the pro-business environment that pervades Capitol Hill.

The nation's 4,000 beer wholesalers, alerted to the legislation by their state and national associations, have been in touch, by phone, mail or in person, with all 435 members of the House and 100 senators.

Meanwhile, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a sleepy group until last year, has taken care of the money side of the lobbying equation. It formed a political action committee (PAC) three months ago, and expects to funnel at least $100,000 into congressional campaigns this year.

"Our reception has been much friendlier in some quarters now that they know we have a PAC," said Bob Sullivan, executive vice president of the NBWA.

The wholesalers have not wanted for friends. At last count, more than 230 House members had signed on as cosponsors of their bill. In the Senate, where the principal sponsors are William Proxmire (D) and Robert Kasten (R), both of the beer-brewing state of Wisconsin, there are 44 cosponsors.

The bill would remove federal antitrust prohibitions against exclusive territorial franchise agreements between brewers and their distributors. It is designed to prevent a wholesaler from one part of a state from going into a different territory and underselling the home distributor.

The wholesalers don't like that sort of price competition, and the brewers worry that such trans-shipping battles could result in increased sales of stale beer, which would undermine the integrity of their products.

Lined up against the legislation are the food retailers, who would like to see more price competition, and the consumer groups.

"On a daily basis . . . American industry proclaims its attachment to the free market," Ed Greelegs of the Consumer Federation of America, wrote to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) last week. "Consumers are told that free competition . . . serves their interest. We find it troubling that the malt beverage industry should be struggling so hard to resist the incorporation of this wisdom in its own operations."

So far Rodino, who is believed to be opposed to the bill, and his Senate counterpart, Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who is at best lukewarm, have resisted scheduling hearings.

But Greelegs, taking note of the steady march of cosigners, expects it will only be a matter of time. "This is one of those classic little special interest bills where a member only sees a . . . gain from being for it," he said. "There isn't a single member who'll lose a vote if he supports the bill, but they know they'll antagonize a politically active constituent if they oppose it."