Do big campaign donations give business an edge with Congress?
Washington — Of all groups affected by congressional wrangling over budget and taxes, none has more to be thankful for than big business. In the tax cut proposals now before the House and Senate, including both Democratic and Republican versions, business makes out very well. Its taxes are likely to be reduced by some $500 billion by 1990.
This no doubt is tied to the large number of congressional converts to the new political theology called "supply-side economics." But it is also a tribute to the growing political might of corporations. For the first time, business outspent labor in national elections last year, particularly through political action committees (PACs).
PAC giving to nonpresidential campaigns grew 66 percent between 1978 and 1980 , according to the Federal Election Commission.
The public interest group, Congress Watch, this week reported on the correlation between business giving and those lawmakers who directly affect tax law. It shows that 86 percent of those on the tax-writing House Ways and Means of Committee received sizable contributions from business PACs. Such giving totaled more than one-fourth of the contributions received by these legislators, and much of it went to incumbents who faced only token opposition and who won by overwhelming majorities.
The Ways and Means Committee initiates tax bills in the Congress, including business tax cuts. In the 1979-80 campaign period, its 35 members received $1.7 million from business PACs. The top recipient was chairman Dan Rostenkowsky (D) of Illinois who got $157,425, or 52 percent of his total contributions from business groups. The top Republican recipient was Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan with $114,562.
As is traditionally the case, all Ways and Means Committee members won their 1980 elections by comfortable margins, garnering 73 percent of the vote on the average. Mr. Rostenkowski won by 85 percent, Mr. Vander Jagt by a whopping 97 percent.
"In no way is this study meant to imply that members' votes are simply for sale to the highest bidder," said Congress Watch attorney Jay Angoff. "However, money does talk. We hope that our study will help people decide for themselves the extent to which it is listened to."
More broadly, the government watchdog group, Common Cause, recently reported that total business PAC giving to 1980 congressional candidates are likely to double that of labor PAC contributions.
In studying the 54 "most powerful decisionmakers in Washington" (House and Senate leadership and committee chairmen), Common Cause found that nearly two-thirds of their PAC contributions came from groups representing corporations or trade associations. Republicans Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, for example, (chairmen of the Senate Finance and Budget Committees) got 78 percent of their PAC contributions from business.
As an example of how this can be used to influence legislation, Common Cause points to committee members working on amending the Clean Air Act. Of the more than $1 million contributed to these lawmakers by PACs, nearly half came from corporations which (according to the Environmental Protection Agency) are in violation of the act.
The Congress Watch study also notes the high correlation between campaign contributions to House Ways and Means Committee members from certain industries and the new tax benefits voted for these speci al interests.