Lobbying has done well by J.D. Williams.

His limousine has a telephone; his house has a swimming pool and tennis court; his Connecticut Avenue office gets regular visits from the barber and the tailor.

A drawling, cowlicked Oklahoman whose clients range from the political wildcatters of independent oil to the establishment conservatives of E.F. Hutton, Williams is one of a hot new breed of lobbying lawyers who spends large chunks of his time in neither pursuit.

What he does instead--for perhaps a quarter of his working hours--is to raise funds to help elect the Congress he lobbies.

The payoff from all this generosity should be obvious. But there's a hidden catch.

Williams' success has helped to spawn a rush of imitators, and the competition has made him feel a bit like a greyhound at the track. No matter how fast he runs, the mechanical rabbit runs faster.

In a sense, the entire Washington lobbying community has fund-raised its way into the same fix: the more it heaps political money on Congress--and special-interest giving is up sevenfold in the past nine years--the more it jacks up the price of influence.

"The edge you used to get from raising money has been diluted," Williams laments. "A few years ago, when fund raising as we now know it was in its infancy, it was vitally important. There were just maybe four or five of us who really knew how to put something together. Now there are 200 in town, maybe more, and there are professionals who do nothing but put fund-raisers together. There is such an availablity of funds that it's not as important as it used to be."

"All of us are spending four nights a week going to each other's cocktail parties," says Robert McCandless, another lawyer-lobbyist who steers business political action committee (PAC) money into Congress. "You wind up spreading the money around to the point where you're superficial with everybody, but not deep with anybody. And everybody else in town is pretty much in the same position. It's almost as though you're back to square one." In the face of this inconvenient rabble of competitors, Williams and McCandless haven't lost their zeal for cocktail parties. They can't afford to. "If you want a seat at the table," says McCandless, "you've got to ante up."

And so the lobbyist's trap is complete: he is in a game that grows more expensive to play, less productive to win, but absolutely unthinkable to quit.

This isn't the only, or even the most compelling, vantage point from which to observe the troubling growth of special-interest money in congressional campaigns, but it provides a useful starting point.

Now spin the binoculars around and look at the same phenomenon from the perspective of the congressman.

And listen to the yelps of anguish:

* "Congress is literally being bought and sold by PAC contributions," says Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.).

* "These new PACs not only buy incumbents, but affect legislation," says Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.).

* "Money is the number one political problem our country is facing," says Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). "I know that money distorts the democratic process."

* "We are the only human beings in the world who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers on important matters and not be affected by it," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

* "The only reason it isn't considered bribery is that Congress gets to define bribery," says Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.).

* "I detest what money is doing to the House," says Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "It is a national obscenity, and it makes it very difficult for us in Congress to think new thoughts. You have PACs, both from business and labor, that say, 'I don't care what your position is on 10 or 20 or 30 other issues, if you're against us on this one, you're out of the ball game with us . ' . . . The combined effect of all this is to cut down on legislative risk-taking.

"We're forced to always look over our shoulders and figure out whether this vote will cost us $10,000 from a PAC, or worse yet, whether it will provoke a PAC into giving $10,000 to an opponent. (Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause calls the potential $20,000 swing the "congressional version of basketball's four-point play.") The guy who gets crowded out in all these calculations is the individual constituent."

And so on.

But wait a minute. Here you've got members of Congress flagellating themselves for being on the auction block. Over there you've got the lobbyists pining for the good old days when influence could be had on the cheap.

What gives?

First some contemporary history: The system Congress uses to fund its elections is a decade old, chiseled into law during the Watergate era by many of the members and lobbyists who now count themselves among its victims.

Some saw its perils from the outset. The late representative Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) is said to have remarked to a liberal colleague during the debate over the election finance reforms that "The enemy is going to be us. We are the ones who are going to be corrupted by this."

In 1974, Congress, feeling the hot breath of public indignation over the fat cats who bankrolled President Nixon's 1972 campaign, adopted a system of public financing for presidential races. But when it came to its own elections, it couldn't quite swallow a solution that would place challengers on an equal financial footing with incumbents. So it went with some halfway measures that:

* Made all campaign money come in the front door, by way of tightened disclosure laws.

* Kept big money out, by limiting what individuals could give.

* Brought the special interest state in, through a set of laws that institutionalized the PACs--organizations that raise money from employes, union members or issue activists and distribute it to candidates.

Of these changes, the one that invigorated the PACs is now in the dock of a great new national debate over campaign financing.

It's not hard to see why. In 1974 PACs contributed $12.5 million to congressional candidates, accounting for roughly a sixth of all funds raised by winners. In 1982, just four elections later, they gave $83 million and accounted for just over a third of all funds raised by House winners. In 1974 there were 608 PACs. Now there are 3,461.

But before we join the debate over PACs, it is worth dwelling a moment on the disclosure laws, for they have changed the dynamics of campaign financing so fundamentally that their impact can easily be taken for granted.

Before the coming (and not just by statute, but by post-Watergate enculturation) of disclosure, lots of money--it's anybody's guess how much--moved into Congress under the table.

"Under the old system, I bagged a lot of money, everybody did," says Loyd Hackler, a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide who now heads the American Retail Federation. "Nowadays these good government groups put out these lists that say this guy got $5,000 from this PAC and that's why he voted this way . . . . Makes me laugh. We didn't mess around with just $5,000."

But disclosure, whatever its blessings, also has produced a circular sort of paradox. It goes as follows: a troubling phenomenon (monied interests bankrolling candidates) that once was largely hidden can now be observed; the ability of the public to observe the phenomenon at least partly checks its tendency to undermine the democratic process (politicians get gun-shy in the sunshine); but even as these checks are created, the newly sighted public grows indignant over what it can now see. So a public clamor builds for a new round of "reforms."

The way of campaign finance reform has always been into a wind. Monied interests have a compelling need to play politics--with more than a trillion dollars in federal spending and tax preferences at stake each year, they simply can't afford to take a bye.

So campaign finance changes, once enacted, get the same rude treatment as changes in the tax code--for every new law, a new loophole. This is not an entirely unanticipated process, either.

Its silent accomplices are the lawmakers themselves, who not only benefit from the loopholes, but who probably believe more than they can publicly admit that monied interests ought to be able to throw their weight around a little bit, that the Founding Fathers were justified in their Cromwellian notions that the propertied do warrant a measure of political protection from the tyranny of the unpropertied.

During the past century, episodes of campaign finance changes have run in the customary swings of the pendulum. Every time the connection between big money and big government gets too cozy--as when GOP boss Mark Hanna systematically levied political assessments on corporations during the Robber Baron era of the late 19th Century--Congress rears up and does some reforming. In that case it was to pass the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited direct corporate contributions to federal campaigns.

But in due time the corporations would find ways to keep playing the political money game, either by having their executives make personal contributions or by delivering cash in black bags.

The general assumption now is that very little money moves illegally into Congress. It doesn't have to: the lawmakers have rendered all but irresistible the temptations of honesty.

"The envelope under the table is the hallmark of a different era," says Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center.

But honesty can have a tawdry face, especially as practiced in the bread-and-circus milieu of contemporary Washington, where the gladiators of the special interest state queue up night after dreary night at $250 or $500 a pop to sip cocktails and eat canapes in the company of the nation's lawmakers.

Watching interested money flow into the campaign warchests of Congress on the nonstop circuit of Washington cocktail parties and "intimate" dinners is no exercise for the faint of heart or weak of liver. There are lobbyists who get 500 invitations a year to these affairs--and some go to nearly half of them.

They go for ego ("I have always considered political fund raising more an exercise in ego than influence," says Fred Dutton, the Saudi Arabian agent); they go to make connections (lawyer Lanny Davis calls fund raising the "floating Kiwanis Club" of Washington); they go for the gossip ("You learn how to work a room in about 20 minutes and really stay on top of what's going on on the Hill," says Williams); and they go to repay old favors or make down payments on new ones ("If a member walks a mile for you, you've got to walk a mile for him," says lobbyist Thomas Boggs).

Most of all, they go because they feel they can't risk not going. "I run scared," says William Colley, a lobbying lawyer at Patton, Boggs and Blow. "I always worry that a member might say 'Well gee, Colley used to come to my fund-raisers. Why isn't he here at this one?' "

To hear some in the lobbying community tell it, the pressures to pay into Congress' kitty "can be damn near extortionate"--so says Richard Armstrong, president of the Public Affairs Council, a local group that looks after the interests of corporate Washington offices.

But as we choke back our tears for the lobbies, let's also cast a return gaze upon the members of Congress, the ones who have been ringing all the alarms about the pressures, the dependencies, the shades of due bill that come along with PAC money.

Can these selfsame ethical guardians also turn out to be . . . extortionists? Can such high-minded hand-wringers be the very ones who throw open their doors to the special interest state and say, "Me first, or else"? Two quick case studies:

Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), a man with perhaps the driest wit in the Senate, is noted for some good one-liners about the PACs. "When they give, they want something in return besides good government," is one. "The trouble is, there aren't any poor people's PACs," is another.

Jokes aside, Dole knows where the money is. In his 1980 race he raised $422,531 from the PACs, a third of his overall campaign take, making him the ninth richest PACman in the Senate that year (and this despite the fact that he didn't have a competitive race).

Then in 1981 and 1982, purely for his personal use and entirely apart from his on-going campaign fund raising, Dole collected $202,600 in honoraria (he gave $82,000 of it back to charity) from speaking engagements, mostly before the same business groups that also support his campaigns through PACs.

(The Senate reluctantly voted this spring to cap its members annual speaking fees to 30 percent of what the taxpayers are willing to pony up each year in salary, so from now on Dole and others will be on a shorter leash.)

Or how about Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), who says he's sickened by the proliferation of the PACs and who is characteristically decent enough to take upon himself a measure of the blame for pushing through the ill-starred "reforms" of a decade ago.

Does Udall keep a wide berth from the monster he helped create? Not on your life. In 1982 he raised $139,458 from PACs in the course of amassing a $794,533 warchest that was seven times bigger than his opponent's.

Udall wasn't exactly in the heat of battle either--his 70.9 percent of the vote hardly qualified his campaign as a cliff-hanger. Why then such overkill on fund raising? Well, he'd had a close call in his 1980 reelection campaign, and he wanted to scare off potential comers in 1982.

The exercise here isn't to indict on charges of hypocrisy a couple of Congress' stars (it wouldn't be fair--of the 535 members, only about a dozen refuse PAC money), but to make a simple point: the vast explosion of special interest money over the past decade is not merely a supply-side phenomenon. It is a demand-side phenomenon as well.

For incumbents (who gobble up close to 80 percent of all PAC money), PACs are a wondrously cost-effective resource in an era that has seen total campaign spending in federal elections shoot up four-fold in 16 years.

"Fund raising from the PACs winds up serving as a sort of informal business tax on lobbying," says Michael Malbin, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

This voracious demand for campaign money is a product mostly of the communications revolution, and whether it ought to be curbed by law is a complicated policy argument for another time and place.

For now let's grapple with two related issues: in what ways does the racehorse growth of business PAC money tilt the campaign playing field, where it tries to elect legislators who will be sympathetic to its interests? And how does it tilt the legislative playing field, where it tries to influence policy?

On the first question, the established wisdom coming out of the 1978 and 1980 campaigns was that business money had made a big splash. The Congresses elected in those two campaigns veered sharply to the right (Republicans had net pickups of 15 Senate and 44 House seats), and this movement, it was widely accepted, was fueled by the powerful network of business PACs and ideologically conservative PACs that had gotten heavily into the money game.

It wasn't just the raw money of these PACs, either--according to this analysis--it was that the PACs discovered how to run in packs. "Pricing leaders" like the Chamber of Commerce or the Business-Industry Political Action Committee hired savvy political operatives to keep an eye on the races around the country, then circulate their tip sheets to the roughly 2,000 corporate and business trade association PACs.

By law, each PAC can give a candidate only $5,000 in a primary and another $5,000 in a general election, but by combining forces this way, like-minded PACs could have a much greater impact. And by using their intelligence network, they could zero in on the close races, where presumably their bucks have the most bang.

Well, if all those dynamics were at work in 1978 and 1980, they were surely at work again in 1982--but this time it was the Democrats who picked up 26 House seats.

(Actually some construe 1982 as further proof of the clout of business money, contending that the Democratic gains would have been greater were they not "bought down" by the business PACs. But the argument doesn't hold. Business money simply wasn't as effectively targeted in 1982, mostly because there weren't as many good targets of opportunity. Meanwhile, labor PAC money, in direct response to the surge of business money in the two elections before, became both more plentiful and better targeted.)

It's an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin sort of proposition to try to assign a weight to the role of money among the many factors that come into play in determining the outcome of a political campaign, but one caveat is worth noting.

It is this: every player in the political world has an interest in overstating money's role--the candidates (why else would they be asking for it?), the community of pollsters/consultants/operatives (what after all pays their salaries?), the special interests (why else would they bother raising and giving it?), and the journalists (money can be tracked with real live numbers, which working reporters cling to as lifeboats on a sea of ambiguity).

Most academic studies on the impact of money in political campaigns show that the first dollars raised and spent are far more valuable than the last dollars. Big spenders run hard into the law of diminishing returns. Their money becomes a weapon in their opponent's oratorical arsenal, and if it happens to be filthy PAC money, so much the better.

"I find it an encouraging comment on our system that a man can go out and spend $1.5 million trying to win a House seat and still lose his shirt," says Scammon, noting the spotty won-loss record of wealthy candidates in 1982.

In most campaigns, studies show, the critical money threshold is not how much an incumbent can amass, but whether a challenger can scare up enough to get his message out. Such analyses make the argument for reforms that would provide expenditure floors rather than ceilings, but again, that's another debate.

For now, it remains for the political money worshipers to make out a compelling case that, when all is said and done, interested business money has tilted anything anywhere in the makeup of Congress.

On then, to the gravamen of Congress' case against itself: the legislative playing field. Does PAC money tilt policy, as so many members seem to think? Or could it be that Congress is actually less corruptible than some of its members like to let on?

A bizarre question, perhaps, but something odd is going on. When it comes to tracking the clout of special interest money on legislation, the whole keeps coming up less than the sum of the parts. Smoke, yes. Fire? Show me.

What after all is the nature of the evidence served up by those who claim that money moves policy around? One kind is anecdotal, in the form of the easy cynicism of Congress members who say (not usually with much detail) that they see this kind of thing go on all the time, knowing their comments play nicely to the easy cynicism of both the press and their constituents.

The other kind is served up by charts showing high correlations between PAC contributions and congressional votes.

But correlation is one thing, causation another. In a recently published book, "Congressmen, Constituents and Contributions," economists James B. Kau and Paul H. Rubin used multiple regression techniques, a statistical system to balance variables, to weight the determinants of congressional votes. They found that ideology and constituent needs were stronger causal factors than money.

In truth, a silent majority of Congress probably agrees with that. They are less noisy than their more alarmist colleagues. They find fund raising to be an often unpleasant, always time-consuming chore that nonetheless can be navigated without loss of honor."For the life of me I can't see what all the fuss is about over the PACs," says Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), who goes on to praise them for broadening voter interest in the democratic process.

If Frenzel's cheerleading cannot assuage those who see a darker side to the PACs, perhaps Richard Thaxton's misgivings can. Thaxton, who is vice president for political affairs of the National Association of Realtors (the nation's number one bankroller of Congress), thinks the proliferation of PACs has crowded into his association's ability to throw its weight around on the Hill.

"The member of Congress has a much more diverse universe to work in," he says, not altogether approvingly. "He can tell some interest group to go fish in somebody else's lake if he wants to. And he can do that secure in the knowledge that he can always go fish in some other PAC's lake, too."