WASHINGTON — SIX months into the first Republican Congress in almost half a century, a dramatic shift in political spending is emerging that could help the GOP maintain its dominance on Capitol Hill for years to come.
In decades past, lobbyists and Political Action Committees (PACs) used to give most of their congressional campaign contributions to Democrats. At the time this seemed good business - Democrats were in the majority and controlled the legislative flow.
But lately this pattern of giving has been reversed. Since the Democrats were defeated at the polls last November, lobbyists and PACs have entered into an aggressive courtship of Republican members of Congress, plying them with large amounts of cash.
Ideology, as well as power politics, has played a part in this reversal. Business-related groups, which make up 63 percent of all PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), now have in power the party they feel is more aligned with their interests. Some of these groups are giving as much as 90 percent of their contributions to the Republicans.
"A lot of money is going to the Republicans," says one lobbyist, requesting anonymity. "Most lobbyists don't think the [Republican rise to power] is a two-year phenomenon. A lot of people who didn't give to the Republicans before are doing so now."
But officials at the FEC and independent analysts warn that the evidence is preliminary and the shift may be short-term. The rush to contribute to Republicans in the months after the November elections may lose steam. By nature, they say, lobbyists hedge their bets.
"We're in a situation where historic change is taking place," says Josh Goldstein, an expert on PACs at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "A lot of PAC money is going early to the Republicans, but I'm skeptical that the trend is going to stay put. There is a real level of uncertainty in the lobbying community about what [the Republican rise to power] means and how to deal with it."
The rise of PACs over the past quarter century has transformed campaign finance. Industries and interest groups donate generous sums of money, which legally must come from employee or member donations. In return, these firms and groups hope to gain access to important members of Congress.
As a general rule, incumbency has governed PAC spending. Take business-related groups, for example. Although telecommunications and construction companies have more advocates for their interests among Republicans, they have traditionally given more in contributions to the long-dominant Democrats.
The November election, however, freed these groups to align their money with their convictions. AT&T, for example, gave Democrats 64 percent of its contributions before the midterm ballot.
In the first three months of 1995, the company, which has major interests in the deregulatory aspects of the Republican-led telecommunications bills pending in the House and Senate, contributed four times as much to Republicans as to Democrats.
INDEED, the shift in party control has forced several changes in the lobbying community. Traditionally, Democratic law firms in Washington have hired Republicans to protect access on the Hill. Some lobbyists have joined the Republican National Committee as a way to stay plugged in to party affairs.
But Bob Biersack, an FEC statistician who is studying the early reports of PACs who file monthly statements, is reluctant to spot a trend.
The incumbent factor, he says, tilts contribution totals in favor of the majority party. There are simply more members to court, so totals will be higher than for the minority party. Nor has the well dried up for Democrats, he says.
The early shift in giving patterns also reflects the rise of a new leadership structure. Committees, for example, are in new hands; past contributions don't ensure access.
"To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between chairman and ranking member [the top minority member of a committee] is like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs," says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Republicans, for their part, are commanding attention from potential donors. Having lost the House after one term each of the last two times it captured the majority, the party isn't taking anything for granted.
On the House side, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) has circulated a list of the top 400 PACs among its members, enumerating contributions the groups make to Republicans and Democrats.
The message hasn't been lost on donors. In 1994, according to the NRCC, 65 percent of all contributions from the listed PACs went to Democrats. So far this year, the top 10 business PACs have given $688,000 to Republicans and only $175,000 to Democrats.
"In the first four months of 1995, we raised more than we did in all of 1993," says Tom Veith, NRCC spokesman. Asked if the list is designed to twist the arms of contributors, he adds: "There may be some people who don't think the Republicans are for real. We're not a fluke. This is about increasing the number of seats we hold."