Joseph A. Califano, Washington insider, examined his morning mail. He had received a number of invitations:

To attend a breakfast honoring a congressman -- and contribute $250. To another breakfast for a congressman -- and another $250. To a kickoff breakfast for a political campaign committee -- and $1,000. To black tie dinners for Democratic candidates -- and $1,000 each. To an event honoring a congressional committee chairman too busy with Washington duties to campaign in his home district -- and $250. To a dinner honoring the years of public service of a retiring U.S. senator -- another $1,000. To separate functions for three other members of Congress -- and contributions from $350 to $250 apiece.

"For the last year I've kept all the invitations to fund-raisers I've received," said Califano, a Washington lawyer, former Cabinet officer and presidential adviser. "It's mind-blowing. In just a year I've got well over a couple of thousand invitations to fund-raisers of one kind or another, from both parties."

Other participants in Washington's political circus say they receive the same inundation of requests for money -- one of every three pieces of mail he receives, according to one prominent lawyer.

Of course, Califano and others like him are being asked for money partly because they are making so much themselves. Colleagues say Califano earns nearly $1 million a year providing advice and legal counsel based in part on experience gained during his years as a White House aide and secretary of health, education and welfare.

Money plays a vastly greater role in the political life of the capital than it did a generation ago, according to many involved then and now. There is more of it to be made, they say, and more people seeking to make it more openly, and more blatantly, than ever. That is the first point many of them make about what might be called the "Deaver Syndrome," the rush of former government officials to profit from private dealings with the government they just served.

Not that the relationship between money and politics presents a new phenomenon in Washington. Money continues to be the "mother's milk of politics," the common denominator of the democratic system.

There is nothing new, either, about the city's recurrent seizures of conscience over the state of capital ethics like the one provoked recently by questions growing from the Washington dealings of Michael K. Deaver. This trusted adviser and public relations counselor to Ronald Reagan instantly translated his government contacts and access to high places into a multimillion-dollar business when he left the White House last May.

Since the days of George Washington, former high government officials have offered to sell their valued expertise and access to policy-makers and legislators in Washington. Since then, too, tales of capital corruption have repeatedly scandalized or titillated the nation.

But today's capital ethics do seem new. Old-style corruption -- venal politicians exchanging votes and favors for cash, vicuna coats and Persian rugs -- is for the most part a thing of the past. At least that is the belief of a score of prominent, longtime Washingtonians interviewed about the present ethical climate of the nation's capital, many of whom agreed to speak about what one called "this sensitive subject" only if their names were not used.

In place of the old venality, many of those interviewed said, is a new prevailing attitude, symbolized now by the Deaver case -- an attitude of insensitivity to the appearance of conflicts of interest.

"What's different is very clear," said Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause, the self-described citizens lobby. "As a given, there's always been influence peddling, inside dealing . . . ranging from activities that might fit the definition of acceptable conduct to improprieties to ethical violations to statutory violations to criminal violations. This administration does not recognize this area as an issue. It is a non-issue, a non-reality, and I question whether you could find any presidential statement from Reagan explaining why it's important to have honesty and integrity in government, why you need standards of public service . . . .

"There is no message coming out of this administration that anything is wrong about all this. Now that's different. In the past, the key to influence peddling was that it was secret, private, people didn't know about it. Why? Because it was considered wrong. Not necessarily by the people who did it, but ultimately it was judged wrong in the public arena. When it came out on the table, it lost. Now blatant public influence peddling is fine . . . .

"I have this image that I play around with of an administration that rode in from the West to tame the evil government, and rode in with the fresh air of the West to clean up this polluted air center, and now they're moving in, they're running around town like classic Washington insiders and they are feeding off the government."

That may be an exaggeration, but different attitudes about the lines between public and private life here do seem to be reflected at top levels of the Reagan administration. An incident at the White House underscored this.

The president had invited members of the committee appointed to oversee his presidential library to a dinner. As one person who was there recalled:

"He had a big breakfast the next day in the White House and the head of the Hoover Institute [Dr. W. Glenn Campbell], who's head of the Reagan Library Committee, got up and said two things which showed how really insensitive some of these people are to this problem. He said, 'You know we have the tremendous advantage of raising money for this library while there's a sitting president.' Two, he says, 'You notice we have Mrs. [Jane] Weinberger on this committee.' [Defense Secretary] Caspar's wife. 'Oh, boy, when Mrs. Weinberger goes to those defense contractors.' He said that. Just totally insensitive. But that's what this is all about. That's the story."

Asked about that incident Friday, Campbell commented, "I may or may not have said something close to that. The fact that we have a sitting president is self-evident, isn't it? There's no question about that. Now Mrs. Weinberger is a member of the Board of Governors and I may have said something like that as a joke, and only as a joke. To the best of my knowledge Mrs. Weinberger would never approach defense contractors. She has too much good sense to do so, and I have not and would not ever ask her to do so. This teaches me again that in Washington you cannot even make a joke without someone misinterpreting it as a serious remark."

Reagan met with key backers of his library project in Los Angeles Friday. Campbell said there that he hopes to raise $80 million to $100 million, but added that the list of donors to the library will not be released.

For much of its history, Washington has attracted ambitious people seeking power and profit as well as opportunities to serve the public. And for much of its history, the making of deals and trading of influence was an accepted staple of life here.

It is said, for instance, that when Congress was debating whether to grant federal land to the railroads, the lobbyists literally "camped in brigades around the Capitol building." In the Ulysses S. Grant administration, when lobbyists bought and sold congressmen like sacks of potatoes and influence peddling became enshrined as a political device, Mark Twain captured the corruption in Washington during what he called "The Gilded Age." A decade later, Henry Adams, scion of presidents and social arbiter of Washington manners and morals, also turned to fiction to describe in his "Democracy" the story of a "political society full of corruption, irresponsible ambition and stupidity."

That kind of climate, perhaps always exaggerated, continued into this century, producing a series of scandals from Teapot Dome to Watergate that reinforced the public impression of Washington as a center of corruption. At the same time, each scandal brought a reaction and, over time, new laws, ethical codes of conduct for government and greater public awareness and scrutiny, especially in the so-called post-Watergate era.

Public scrutiny, public disclosure, whistle-blowing and increasing use of leaks from within government about wrongdoing have exerted a powerful check on corruption, longtime Washingtonians agreed. The new rules have made it much easier to expose cases of malfeasance, a fact that may contribute to the large numbers of Reagan administration officials caught in embarrassing situations since 1981.

Today's corruption, if such a word applies, stems more from changing attitudes that make "cashing in" more acceptable, from the proliferation of lobbying groups and political action committees and from the greater amounts of money to be made.

More people appear to be drawn to government not as a career, but as a means to cash in on their public service as quickly and profitably as possible, according to lawyers and lobbyists. One observer described this as the desire "to do two years and then come out and make a big hit. They all think that they're going to be able to be bigger earners, bigger hitters, than they were before they went in. I'm not sure it works, but that's the mythology, that's the legend, and they do come to town with that in mind."

At the same time, the number of jobs in which people are paid to try to influence policy in Washington has mushroomed both in the private and "public interest" sectors. For example, the files of the Foundation for Public Affairs here now include the names of about 2,500 public interest organizations representing almost every conceivable political viewpoint -- and all involved in the legislative/lobbying process.

Add these to the public relations firms such as that founded by Deaver after leaving the White House, the burgeoning District of Columbia law firms, consulting groups, corporate and union offices and firms dealing with foreign governments, and one has an enormously expanding world of people involved in representing or seeking to influence the government. The money they spend totals untold millions annually.

The fixers, the rainmakers, the touts of influence-peddling legend are still here, probably earning ever greater sums for selling their services. But according to many of the Washington insiders interviewed for this story, the results they achieve often are negligible. Obviously, special interest lobbying can produce tangible results in the form of tens of millions of dollars for clients on such major congressional legislation as the 1981 tax bill. Still, the view is widely held that much "rainmaking" is as fraudulent as . . . well, as attempts to make rain.

"My judgment has been that most of the time the people who are taking the huge fees are guilty of false pretenses," said one person intimately involved with the lobbying process here. "Not in the criminal sense that you could prosecute them for it, but they're total charlatans because they can't do anything. In a sense, they're really stealing from a bunch of scoundrels. And the con men out there who are coming in here to create the fix, you know, are the biggest patsies in the world. So it's just a bunch of con men working on each other and I don't think they affect the result.

"It's a rarity when you see an important decision in government affected by an old school tie or an attempt to influence the official. I don't really think there is the kind of corruption or venality in government that the existence of all these fixers suggests. The principal corruption is the corruption of the pretenses they make as to what they can do when they lift these gargantuan fees off these hicks when they come to Washington. They come in, you know, with shoes and they go out without shoes." Those involved in the process of representing clients who deal with the government resent being tagged as "influence peddlers," and see much of the news media as naively preoccupied with the occasional scandal while missing the larger picture of the way the process works.

Leonard Garment, who served in the Nixon White House and now practices law here, said, "I don't think this city could work without lobbyists. Nor would the Constitution actually be a live enterprise without lobbies because that's the way one petitions for the redress of grievances. This is a country that is so large that the federal notion of representative government saturates our life, and that's very much the case with lobbying. Is it different now than it has been at an earlier time that I'm familiar with? Yes, but everything is bigger. I mean, there's more of everything. The main change from the past, and this is impressionistic, is that . . . there are many many more lobbies now.

"And a lot more of people who had nothing to do with government. They come here not to be part of the public life experience. They come here to be lobbyists. It's like becoming a periodontal surgeon without going to dental school. They're working on the patients without much in the way of real experience . . . .

"And everybody's got a lobbyist. It's like private businesses having jet aircraft. The accoutrements of modern life . . . . The general impression is that unless you have somebody representing you, you're in trouble. It's clumsy but roughly correct that they are like a lot of blind people groping in a closet. They know they should have somebody to explain the jargon, to read the hieroglyphics of this mysterious pre-Mayan culture called Washington. And they're told that there are this whole group of special guys that you find at the headwaters of the Potomac and if you say the right words they'll put you in a canoe and take you up there and help you find your way into the mysterious culture."

"And what makes it so troublesome is, occasionally they're right," added Michael J. Horowitz, former counsel at the Office of Management and Budget, who was listening to Garment's analysis. "The need is real."

"I'll tell you what's different about Washington now," said a lobbyist for a major trade association who for years was a key congressional aide. "Money. It's just more pervasive. This proliferation of the PACs [political action committees], these around-the-clock fund-raisers . . . . All for money. Everyone expects it. It has to be done. You have to raise that money -- 'hitting the drum,' as they say -- and you have to give it.

"Unless you hit the drum, you're not in the game. Unless you give your 'max,' [a PAC can contribute a maximum of $5,000 per election to a candidate, and an individual citizen can give up to $1,000 per candidate] unless you lay out your $5,000 at a fund-raiser, you don't have access. Now that only buys a return call. I'll give you a concrete example of what money buys. I can take out of my pocket right now and show you a line in the proposed tax legislation that, if deleted, will cost my industry billions of dollars -- billions, that is. Now this afternoon, three lobbyists -- big, big contributors -- are meeting with Sen. X on the tax bill. Others can't get in the front door. So the question is which one gets to tell his message directly. And if you don't go to those fund-raisers, if you don't hit the drum, if you don't 'max out,' you don't get in the door. They don't even return your phone calls."

To Califano, the explosion of money-raising and money-giving has had an adverse effect on the political system. "The influence of money has turned Congress into an institution that resembles the state legislatures in the days of Lincoln Steffens," he said.

To others, like former senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), whose congressional hearings on corruption, the role of influence peddlers, fixers and "Five Percenters" at the end of the Truman administration led him then to decry "the moral deterioration of democracy," today's climate makes the past seem almost innocent. "We never even had fund-raisers here when I was in the Senate," said Fulbright, now a Washington lawyer. "They were all held in Arkansas."

The new flood of money, coupled with the flow of people from government into private practice in Washington, leads some to fear that the situation is bound to grow worse. One veteran lobbyist, from a background on Capitol Hill, speaks darkly about a "return to the Robber Baron era," when the "special interests" were virtually able to dictate congressional legislation that benefited their businesses.

Most interviewed, however, were far less pessimistic. Many argued that a rigorous application of existing rules and guidelines would head off a new era of venality.

"There happens to be, in my view, a good set of rules about ethical conduct on the books," Common Cause's Wertheimer said. "Statutes. They are balanced rules, and I don't buy the notion that rules don't matter. They matter everywhere in our society. But ethical conduct is a combination of things. It's rules and guidelines. It's attitudes and atmosphere. It's oversight and enforcement. So we have the rules and the guidelines to a good degree. We have neither the attitudes and atmosphere nor the enforcement. And it all goes back to the tone established by this administration."