Leaders' Personal PACs Draw Fire
`Fat cats' in House and Senate use funds raised to help colleagues - and gain influence. CONGRESS
THERE'S a new kind of ``fat cat'' strolling the halls of Congress. Fat cats - wealthy contributors - have greased the wheels of American politics for decades. Now, in an ironic twist, politicians themselves are becoming the newest fat cats.Skip to next paragraph
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Congressmen like William Gray III, Henry Waxman, and former Rep. Tony Coelho have sought power on Capitol Hill by calculated contributions to their fellow members' campaigns.
In 1986, for example, Mr. Coelho divvied up almost $570,000 among 245 Democratic House candidates. Not surprisingly, Coelho's fellow Democrats in gratitude promoted him to majority whip, the No. 3 job in the House, a month after the election.
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, has probed this recent phenomenon of leadership contributions in a study, ``The New Fat Cats,'' published by the Twentieth Century Fund.
ONE difference between the new fat cats and the old fat cats: the new ones are not using their own money.
Coelho and other leaders in Congress raise money through their own personal political-action committees. Their personal PACs solicit funds from wealthy contributors and other sources; then, at the congressmen's discretion, the funds are distributed to other members of Congress.
Coelho put together his huge 1986 war chest through his own Valley Education Fund. Mr. Gray has a PAC called the Committee for Democratic Opportunity. Mr. Waxman's fund is the 24th Congressional District of California PAC.
Professor Baker warns that PACs like these, which put financial power into the hands of key congressmen, raise two dangers for good government:
1.They are fragmenting the power of political parties by setting up individual fiefdoms in both the Senate and the House. Contributions are made member to member, not party to member, thus weakening party ties and party responsibility.
2.Huge pools of money under the personal control of congressmen raise fresh concerns about congressional ethics.
Altogether, about 50 leadership PACs have operated on Capitol Hill under the aegis of leading members of Congress, including Robert Byrd, Alan Cranston, John Danforth, Dennis DeConcini, Thomas Foley, Richard Gephardt, Newt Gingrich, John Glenn, Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Ernest Hollings, Edward Kennedy, Richard Lugar, Robert Michel, Dan Rostenkowski, and Jim Wright.
Curiously, much of the money for these personal PACs comes from other PACs - corporate, labor, special interest. Thus, a corporate PAC gives to a congressman's PAC, and the congressman uses the money to buy influence with another member.
Baker says the rise of leadership PACs began with the congressional reforms of the 1970s. It started when the House changed its ways of selecting committee chairmen.
Before reform, Congress had operated on the seniority system. Choice committee chairmanships went automatically to members who had served longest. But in the 1970s, reformers threw out that system and insisted on the election of committee chairs by secret ballot.
Suddenly, ambitious House members needed a way to curry their colleagues' favor to win leadership positions on committees and subcommittees.
The most obvious answer: money.
Baker says the trend toward leadership PACs began with a PAC known as ``Friends of Henry Waxman.'' It was formed in 1978 to aid the efforts of Mr. Waxman, a California congressman, to win the chairmanship of a Commerce subcommittee.
``This ... first leadership political-action committee ... was decisive to Waxman's campaign for the subcommittee chairmanship,'' Baker says.