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A basic public relations ploy for anyone under fire is to pick a fight with someone who's even more despised. The Senate knows it has a big public relations problem, so it is picking a fight with the PACs - the political-action committees which have become the much-reviled source of millions in campaign funds.

A proposal to abolish PACs is the most-advertised feature of both the Democratic and Republican campaign finance ``reform' bills the Senate will debate in the next month. Abolishing PACs is publicized as the way to cleanse American politics of the corrupting influence of special-interest money. It carries the blessing of President Bush, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and many other worthies.Other parts of the measures cleared for Senate consideration have substance and merit. But the PAC-ban is a phony, a ringer. It's a decoy that will damage voters' ability to know who's really paying for campaigns while doing little about the problem of making congressional elections more competitive.

PACs were born of an earlier reform - the 1970s version - as a way to bring into the light of cleansing publicity the underground stream of campaign cash that interest groups of all kinds had been pumping into politics from time immemorial. The idea was - and is - a sound one. It lets the press report quickly and precisely the economic and ideological groups that are supporting candidates. It gets that information to voters before they enter the polling place.

The trouble is that the politicians got greedy. As PACs proliferated (there are more than 4,600 of them now), incumbents found it easier and easier to put the arm on the PACs for campaign funds, rather than bother their own constituents with appeals for funds.

Last year, PACs gave almost eight dollars to incumbents for every dollar they offered a challenger. Many of those PACs are tied to organizations which have legislative business before Congress. They favor those in a position to help them now. Thus, the PACs contribute significantly to the biggest problem in the campaign finance system - the glaring inequality of resources between incumbents and challengers.

The logical way to deal with this problem is to limit the amount of money any candidate can accept from PACs. That would really diminish the incumbents' advantage. But instead of imposing that discipline on themselves, the sponsors of both the Democratic and Republican versions of the Senate campaign finance bill purport to put the PACs out of business.

Only if the courts rule that banning PACs violates the First Amendment protections for freedom of association and expression would the Senate bills trigger a backup mechanism slicing PAC contributions from $5,000 to $1,000 and limiting the amount of money a candidate can take from PACs.

Although President Bush publicly encourages the ban-the-PACs hypocrisy, only the naive would believe that auto workers, Realtors, insurance agents or environmentalists would retire to the political sidelines if their PACs were abolished. They would simply find other, less accountable ways to play in the game.

The Senate bills contain useful ideas about reducing the expense of campaigns. But as long as there are costs to political communication in a mass society like ours, some of the money will have to come from people who are pushing political agendas of their own. The way to deal with this reality is to channel that money through organizations that are highly visible, i.e. PACs.

Candidates who decline PAC funds are not thereby freed from any obligation to individuals with economic or ideological interests. Studies of their contributors' lists turn up thousands of contributors and millions of dollars linked to interests. But the cumbersome research denies this information to voters before Election Day.

Eliminating PACs might or might not reduce the incumbents' edge in collecting interest-group money. They would still have easier access to contributors than most challengers.

The surest way to get more resources to under-financed challengers is to increase the limits on what the two parties can give to those candidates - something that only the Republicans are proposing in the Senate. The political parties are the only organizations that have a built-in interest in unseating the other side's incumbents. In a political game that is ruthlessly stacked in the incumbents' favor, real reform lies in empowering the parties - not pretending to abolish PACs.

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