If money is the lifeblood of politics, a serious candidate for national office needs daily transfusions. More and more, these transfusions come from Political Action Committees (PACs), whose spending in the 1983-1984 Presidential election cycle increased more than 125% over the last cycle. Almost all of the major corporations, labor unions, and lobbying groups have a PAC, and the sizes of the checks they write are the most accurate measures of their clout in Washington.

That is why the pathetic balance sheets of small-business PACs are especially telling about the influence that small business wields on Capitol Hill. There are only seven PACs that claim to represent small business, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. The combined receipts of all these PACs taken together are roughly equal to the receipts of just one typical Fortune 500 corporation's PAC. Since 1983, small-business PACs collected less than $325,000 -- loose change compared with the receipts of such leading PAC- men as the National Conservative Political Action Committee ($10 million) and the United Auto Workers ($1 million). Even Texas doctors gave almost three times as much to the Texas Medical Association PAC as all small-business people gave to their PACs.

Small-business PACs haven't been notably successful with the money they have collected, either. The worst record probably belongs to America's Small Business PAC, launched in 1981 by Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Small Business Committee. When Ireland announced the PAC's formation, he said that it would go a long way toward building influence for small business in Congress.

Instead, Ireland's PAC has been a bust. According to FEC records, the PAC hasn't contributed a dime to any political candidate since 1982, and since November 1983, it has run a deficit of nearly $8,000. "I thought it would be good for something, but it wasn't," says Marshall De Sear, co-owner of a Florida appliance store, who gave $1,000 in 1983. Before Ireland put the PAC "on hold," he spent thousands of dollars with a public relations firm that seemed to promote him as much as his cause. Ireland, who is the PAC's treasurer, blames its demise on the distractions caused by his change of political affiliation last summer. In addition, a crucial fund-raising effort by Richard Viguerie, the renowned conservative activist, failed to attract many contributions.

One potential bright spot is a new effort under way by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). Although the federation, which has more than half a million members, has managed to collect only about 25? per member per year, it now plans to raise a political war chest of $2 million every two years. To do this, NFIB is soliciting a $500,000 endowment to use as seed money for future fund-raising. If the effort is successful, NFIB will hire a full-time staff to run its PAC activities. "We want to be players, [not sit] on the sidelines," says Dick Fisher, who has managed NFIB's PAC since its inception.

Why have small-business PACs been on the sidelines all these years? Fisher argues that small-business people, who are used to running their own shows, "are independent to a fault" as a group. They are reluctant to let someone else spend their money for them -- even their tax-deductible political contributions.

Small-business people also have trouble defining a common political agenda. They typically define themselves first by industry. So some of their political contributions go to trade-group PACs, rather than to those that represent small business. Most trade-group PACs are dominated by the political interests of large corporations, which are often different from those of smaller companies.

The heart of the problem, though, lies with the basic political strategy pursued by most of Washington's small-business lobbies. In both fund-raising and lobbying, a PAC must make tough, partisan choices about politicians who hold genuine power: party leaders, committee chairmen, even Presidents. To make such choices, to be a "player," as NFIB's Fisher puts it, a PAC must possess both a clear vision of its own interests and the savvy to get a bang for its buck.

Most small-business lobbyists have developed neither the vision nor the savvy, because they fail to look beyond the Small Business Administration for identity and power. Until they can articulate a political agenda that goes beyond the SBA, they will probably remain among the more inconsequential PAC men in Washington.