Reducing the role of special interests in political campaign financing still is not all that popular an idea in American lawmaking circles. Only two states -North Dakota and Texas -have enacted what appear to be significant measures in that direction this year. Except in Massachusetts, where the Legislature is considering a strong funding control proposal, few proposals are still afloat.
The Bay State proposal, if approved by the Senate and governor, would limit contributions by political action committees (PACs) to $1,000 for a state legislative seat and $2,500 for statewide offices.
Currently, as in most other states, there is no ceiling on the size of such special interest donations.
The 250 PACs in the commonwealth are a particularly convenient vehicle for funneling funds to candidates. Massachusetts and 21 other states (plus the federal government) forbid corporations from giving directly. The Bay State proposal resulted from a two-year special commission study of political payoffs in state construction contracts.
Although all 50 states permit the formation of PACs, 19 of them restrict the amount the committees can contribute to an individual candidate. These states are: Alsaka, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
While nobody seems to know exactly how many of these special political committees provided financial aid to candidates for state offices in 1980, those close to the scene estimate the total runs well into the thousands. A National Conference of State Legislators survey found that between 1976 and 1978 the number of business-related PACs in California increased from 87 to 149. In neighboring Arizona, the number of PACs making political donations mushroomed from 24 to 175 between 1974 and 1978.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the quadrupling of PACs at the federal level; from 608 in the 1974 campaign to more than 2,500 currently.
These special interest funding sources contributed $55.3 million to contenders for US House and Senate seats last year. According to a Federal Election Commission congressional financing report, corporation supported PACs kicked in $19.2 million; health and trade associations, $16.1 million; labor union committees, $13.1 million; and other PACs, $6.9 million.
The increasingly heavy involvement of special interests in campaign financing is a major concern to Common Cause. The public interest group is pressing for a cap on the amount a candidate can receive from all PAC sources. It is backing legislation filed by US Reps. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, and Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas. The new legislation forbids candidates for the House from accepting more than $75,000 in any election from all PAC sources combined. A Senate contender would be restricted to an amount ranging from $75, 000 to $500,000 depending on the size of the state. A previous bill, limiting campaign for House seats, passed the lower congressional chamber in 1979 but died in the Senate.
At present there is no ceiling on the amount a congressional candidate can receive from these special committees, although no single PAC can give more than
The current Massachusetts statute bans any such marginal participation by businesses. Efforts earlier this fall to water down the restriction so that firms could help set up PACs, was sidetracked by the state Legislature after stiff opposition from Common Cause and others.
Organized labor is excluded from the $1,000 per candidate restriction proposal now pending in the Massachusetts Senate. Direct participation of unions in elections is permitted in the commonwealth.
Besides the federal government, only nine states -Arizona, Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming -now ban unions from compaigning.
The new Texas law forbids political contributions 30 days before and 30 days after a legislative session. Cash donations are restricted to less than $100.