Undue influence from business PACs? The record shows it really isn't that great

Despite the lavish amount of attention they have received in the news media and by politicians out of office, the role of political-action committees (PACs) is poorly understood by the general public. PACs are almost universally denounced as the tools of large corporations, attempting to subvert the public interest for the sake of profit.

What is the reality?

Critics of the large amounts of funds spent in campaign elections focus on the contributions of business interests, especially as funneled through PACs sponsored by individual companies. While it is assumed that private donors are often interested in a candidate's general philosophy and views on a range of issues, PACs are usually seen as being preoccupied with obtaining specific advantages. In the words of Sen. Robert Dole, ''When PACs give money, they expect something in return other than good government.''

It would be naive to suggest that business PACs do not want ''something else'' for their financial support. But it would be even more naive simply to assume that any other nonbusiness PAC or an individual contributor did not want something as well. What PACs and other special-interest representatives want is access to elected officials. The late Justin Dart, former chairman of Dart & Kraft, said it best: ''Talking to politicians is fine, but with a little money they hear you better.''

It is not surprising that business should seek to maintain such access to government, if only to ensure that ''good government'' isn't necessarily ''bad business.'' It is also true that the number of business PACs has multiplied rapidly in recent years and that the amount of funds they raise is substantial. Yet some perspective is useful.

First of all, PACs play a limited role in campaign financing. For example, of the $300 million raised by candidates in the 1981-82 election cycle, all PACs - including those funded by labor, civic groups, farm organizations, and business associations - accounted for less than 27 percent. The average contribution by a corporate PAC was about $500, or 0.04 percent of the average cost of a successful Senate race and 0.25 percent of the cost of a House race. Moreover, corporate PAC contributions accounted for less than 10 percent of candidate receipts for the 1982 election.

It is worth noting that PACs are no longer major contributors to presidential campaigns. Government financing (via the $1 voluntary checkoff in the federal personal income tax return) has replaced private funding in the nation's general election. PACs accounted for only 1 percent of the total 1980 receipts of the prenomination presidential campaigns. Given all these figures, it is hard to believe that the influence of business PACs on elected officials is nearly as great as the public furor over them would imply.

The power of business PACs is also diluted by the fact that they are not monolithic. Like the sectors they represent, PACs are varied and sometimes contending. It should not be too surprising to find one business PAC competing with another one. For example, PACs sponsored by thrift institutions will at times promote views that differ from those representing commercial banks. Companies that export do not share all of the political positions held by those hard hit by imports.

Besides, not all large corporations are politically active. Of the 500 largest industrial companies in the United States, 277 sponsored a PAC in 1982. The typical business executive is still reluctant to project an activist image.

Even in a politically active year, only about 1 out of 5 officers and directors of the very largest industrial companies, including government contractors, contributes to political parties. Since large manufacturing firms have generally had higher rates of political contributions by their officials than other businesses, that 20 percent figure is probably a generous indicator of the financial participation of business as a whole.

Moreover, industry is not the only special-interest group sponsoring PACs. In fact, of the 20 largest PACs in 1982 (ranked by the amount actually disbursed), none represent industry. Although many individual manufacturing companies have established sizable PACs, the largest concentrations of financial power devoted to political contributions are represented by such other interests as doctors and dentists, farmers, unions, gun owners, and Democrats.

From the viewpoint of public policy, the fundamental shortcoming of PACs is their bias toward incumbents. The support of the status quo is demonstrated by the fact that for every dollar a PAC donates to a challenger, $3.50 goes to the incumbent's campaign.

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