Congressmen, war chests, and the influence of PACs

The Best Congress Money Can Buy, by Philip M. Stern. New York: Pantheon Books. 321 pp. $18.95. Rep. Ronnie Flippo has a ``safe seat'' in Congress. Yet in 1986 this small-town Democrat from Alabama stuffed his war chest with more than $25,000 from big New York banks and banking PACs (political-action committees). Why would bankers in New York lavish such favor on a relatively unknown congressman? In ``The Best Congress Money Can Buy,'' Philip Stern answers: Flippo, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, had proposed that the panel vote to enlarge a tax loophole the Reagan administration was trying to close. It ``would have meant $7.6 billion in tax benefits to the banking industry.''

A similar story is told by the disclosures of Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, who routinely wins elections by 96 percent of the vote. Rangel has gotten so much money from PACs that his receipts tripled between 1980 and 1984, leaving him with a campaign surplus of $250,000. Since he doesn't need the money to win, why? ``Rangel is the fourth-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes all the tax laws....''

Stern's thesis, that megabucks from PACs have turned Congress into a tawdry pit of influence-peddling and bribery, may or may not be supported by the excruciatingly detailed facts and figures he has assembled in very readable fashion. That depends on what you believe the role of government should be. But irrespective of one's political perspective, ``The Best Congress Money Can Buy,'' a marvelous piece of research, makes it appear as if a lot of congressmen are up for sale to the highest bidder.

Flippo and Rangel are small potatoes compared with Sens. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas. Dole is ``undisputed champion in the Senate at raising money from PACs,'' having collected $3,366,305 from 1972 through 1986. The PACs received generous dividends for their investment, Stern shows. For example, nearly $300,000 has come from Archer-Daniels-Midland and the family of its chairman, Dwayne Andreas. Dole has sponsored more than 23 bills, including a major tax concession, to promote gasohol, of which ADM is a major producer. As Dole says, ``When these political-action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government.''

Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen tried to sponsor $10,000 breakfasts for PAC representatives with an interest in matters before that panel, an idea that was quickly abandoned when the press got hold of it.

Stern's key point emerges in a crisp explanation of the difference between citizen and PAC contributions. ``The average citizen is mainly interested in influencing the outcome of an election. A PAC is less interested in the influence it has on an election outcome than in the influence it buys with the winner after the ballots have been counted.'' Viewed in that light, it's easy to understand why PACs contributed to opposing candidates in 494 races during 1986.

PACs are also able to benefit members long after they leave office, because the House of Representatives allows any member elected before 1980 to keep campaign surpluses after his or her House career has ended. Stern's research shows that many members have built up nest eggs of more than $500,000, including New York Democrat Stephen Solarz, who has bagged nearly a million, and Flippo, who has more than $600,000 in the bank.

Should it surprise anyone that a business would legally try to influence a congressman on the Ways and Means or Finance Committee via PAC contributions, considering the increasingly complex, ever-changing maze of confiscatory tax laws? The question Stern never asks is, to which group is corporate management responsible: taxpayers or stockholders?

In casting his sinistral beam on the PAC business, Stern suggests federal financing of congressional races and banning PAC contributions as ways to stop the naked influence-peddling on Capitol Hill. But are PACs responsible for what Stern says is the undemocratic way in which the business of Congress is conducted? Or is Congress responsible?

R. Cort Kirkwood is an editorial writer with the Washington Times.

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