Washington's PAC-men

They pulled the rug out from under the millionaire campaign donors. No longer could the W. Clement Stones and Stewart R. Motts whip out their checkbooks and write in whatever they pleased for the candidates of their choice.

This year their successors will contribute $138 million to the most expensive Congressional election in history. In return, candidates will lend them at least an open ear, at best a future favor.

In 1971, when Congress shut the door on the old way of financing federal election campaigns -- small numbers of large contributions -- it opened the door to PACs, or political-action committees. Now, like that community in Florida where frogs proliferated in every yard, alley, and sidewalk, it seems you can't leave your house without worry of stepping on one or, for that matter, getting a contribution from one. In 1980, PACs provided nearly a quarter -- $52 million -- of the campaign contributions politicians received. The 1982 figure will be 21/2 times that.

Born of election reform, the ubiquitous PACs were meant to allow more voices into the political forum -- to take political power from the monied interests and scatter it to the grass roots. But the same laws that stifled large contributors have actually increased or made more visible the roles played by special interests.

PACs are normally organized by business, labor, professional, agrarian, ecological, or issue groups. They raise political funds on a voluntary basis from members, stockholders, or employees to contribute to candidates.

And where there is cash, there's a politician's outstretched palm. It cost a senator, on the average, just over $1 million to campaign in 1980. The average Representative spent $147,000 on his campaign. Even though legally each PAC can only grease that palm to the tune of $10,000, there are greater numbers of them doing it - more than 3,000 at last count. And there's no limit how much a PAC can spend for or against a candidate without his approval.

So, tracking the new influence is the new avocation for everyone from election scholars to public-interest lobbies. And echoing both parties' concerns as well as those of Congress-watchers within and without government is Rep. Richard Bolling (D) of Missouri: ''Domination of congressional elections by heavy spending is the most serious issue in the country today,'' he says, one that ''threatens the future of democracy even more than the economy.''

''If you had two phone calls at once, and your secretary said one was a constituent, the other a PAC that gave you $10,000 last election, which phone would you pick up?''

In one corner of the PAC debate is Common Cause, the Washington, D.C.-based public-interest lobby. The above question posed by chief lobbyist Randy Huwa puts the PAC debate in a nutshell: If money -- and a PAC contribution -- talks, do candidates and congressmen listen? And does this influence their decisions on legislation?

They cite the recent vote on a used-car bill as an example that congressmen do more than just listen.

Of those who accepted money from the National Automotive Dealers' PAC, ''Eighty-two percent of those in the House voted for it. Sixty-three percent of those that didn't take money voted against the resolution. That suggests that the PAC money made some difference,'' says Mr. Huwa.

Huwa says Common Cause has monitored other such votes -- on dairy price supports, FTC regulations, a hospital cost containment bill, and the Clean Air Act -- and finds similar correlations. In the 1981 dairy price support vote, for example, Common Cause showed that representatives who voted for higher supports had received nearly 10 times as much money from three rich dairy PACs than those who voted against.

''The purpose is getting access to members of Congress,'' Huwa says. And that is bad, he says, because it's not the kind of access that's available to everybody.

''The moral of the story,'' says one commentator, ''is not that money talks -- it always has. But when the same PACs have the ear of both parties, what distinction remains between them? Who will stand in opposition? For if everybody listens to the same big givers, who will represent the people who cannot give or speak at all?''

In another corner of the debate is Herb Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation (CRF), a nonpartisan observer of trends in political finance. He says Common Cause oversimplifies. ''PAC contributions may make a difference when the congressman is wavering, but usually the PAC has given ahead of time to the candidate more broadly in its ideological range to begin with -- liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican.''

He says PACs are a necessary element in current campaign funding.

''They fill a void left by millionaire contributors. Mass-mail solicitation is expensive and not feasible for many candidates,'' he says. ''And there are limits to the numbers of fund-raising dinners, cocktail parties, and breakfasts that a candidate can expect to be productive.''

PACs allow what the reform efforts were designed to allow, Mr. Alexander says: more voices to be heard in determining who will become our nation's elected officials.

Rep. Bill Frenzel (R) of Minnesota agrees that PACs ''increase individual participation in the political system,'' amplifying the effectiveness of small donors, whose average gift is $14 to $20. He says they offset the influence of organized labor and ''provide the potential to balance the inordinate advantages of incumbency.'' And he argues that they take ''the sting out of saying certain people or certain groups are controlling the government.''

Election reform efforts of the 1950s and '60s set out to replace nonideological party machines with issue-oriented politics, Alexander says. The idea was to appeal to increasing numbers of college-educated and suburban voters: on peace, environment, civil rights, equal opportunity. The result has been a shift away from party-dominated precinct politics to single-issue groups on one side or another of specific issues: abortion, ERA, gun control, or busing. So as political parties diminish in importance, people join groups that can be effective on issues their members care about. That can mean supporting the business, labor, single-issue, or broadly ideological PAC of their choice.

Pro- and anti-PAC forces are both looking for ways to counteract the undesirable influences of PAC donations or their perceived evils.

Common Cause presses for public funding of congressional campaigns. Legislation it supported was defeated in the Senate in 1977 and the House in 1978 and '79.

The CRF would increase the amount an individual is allowed to give to a candidate (set in 1975 at $1,000). This would reduce financial pressures on candidates by giving them a lucrative alternative to PACs -- and still respect the values of diversity and increased participation that PACs bring to the political scene.

Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, and Rep. Michael L. Synar (D) of Oklahoma have introduced legislation to place a cap on the total contributions from PACs that each candidate for Congress may accept. Their bill (HR 4070) proposes to limit the total amount that House candidates can take from all PACs combined to $75, 000 per election and to set a Senate limit based on state populations. And to encourage more reliance on individual givers, they would raise the lid on personal contributions from $1,000 to $2,500 and offer a larger tax credit for political gifts.

Beyond the influence of PAC donations is the larger dragon: independent expenditures. A political-action committee may spend as much as it pleases for -- or against - a candidate, so long as it does not cooperate or consult with the candidate or his committees.

''A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean,'' says Terry Dolan. He is chairman of the National Conservative PAC , NCPAC, which spent a total of $3.3 million independently of its PAC contributions to candidates in 1980. Of this sum, $1.4 million went into campaigns against 10 candidates, most notably, Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho, and Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota. Cries went up from candidates and others in both parties over the ''hit-and-run'' tactics -- coming into a state to buy TV and radio time as well as print space and then leaving.

But in 1976, the US Supreme Court said the practice was constitutional (Buckley v. Valeo): ''Since it is beyond contention that individuals and 'informal' groups may make unlimited political expenditures to express their First Amendment rights, political committees may not be denied the same right merely because they are efficient groupings of like-minded individuals.''

Surprisingly, one critic of this practice is also one of its biggest practitioners. ''I'm against independent expenditures. I do not think they help the political process,'' Mr. Dolan says. ''But I intend to use them until we have other ways of going about electing people.''

Asked why he opposed them, Dolan said, ''Because they decrease accountability . . . I think candidates should be accountable for charges that are brought up, and there was case after case where we would deliberately say things that would be dangerous for an incumbent to say.''

Only about 20 PACs practice the tactic of independent expenditures, according to the Federal Election Commission. But as Huwa points out, ''You're talking millions of dollars, and that's significant even if it is relatively small number of groups.'' He expects more PACs will follow suit in coming elections.

The major charge against independent expenditures is indeed lack of accountability. Ads that are inaccurate or inflammatory can damage not only the victim but also the supposed beneficiary.

Both parties are leery of independent expenditures:

* Republican National Committee chairman Richard Richards: ''When (they) get into a political campaign . . . and say or do what they want without either candidate or campaign having any responsibility for it, it works great mischief in the campaign process.'' He has recommended raising the presidential general election campaign grant as a means of decreasing the need for independent expenditures. ''You cannot run a presidential campaign for $34 million, and (therefore) these independent groups pop up.''

* The Democratic National Committee's Bill Clinton: ''There is some problem created for the parties when the independent expenditure committees are out there doing their own thing.'' He suggests raising ''the contribution limits in elections to reasonable levels'' which would undermine their incentive.

The upsurge to $14 million in 1980 spent ''independently'' has been the new and most hotly debated factor in PAC campaign spending. The figure this year is expected to be nearly $20 million (out of $100 million contributed total).

The two ideological PACs that raised and spent the most money in 1980 were right-wing groups: Sen. Jesse Helms's National Congressional Club -- $7.9 million -- and NCPAC, $7.6 million. But liberal Democratic groups are trying to catch up.

The Progressive Political Action Committee, ProPAC, was formed last year. It has selected Republican incumbent Sens. Helms, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Harrison H. Schmitt of New Mexico and is running a similar ''hit-and-run'' campaign against them much the way NCPAC hit Church, McGovern, and others in 1980.

PACs spent $12.5 million ''independently'' to boost the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Jesse Helms's National Congressional Club was the biggest spender, giving $4.6 million. No. 2 on the list was NCPAC.

Common Cause in 1980 brought suit to limit independent expenditures. A three-judge panel turned it down. And in January the US Supreme Court let the decision stand with a 4-to-4 vote -- leaving the constitutional status unresolved.

To offset some of the financial edge and damage of independent expenditures, Common Cause has proposed an amendment to the broadcasting law. Recognizing that most independent spending goes for radio and TV ads, any candidate faced with independent spenders' ads would be entitled to an equal amount of free broadcast time to respond.

And one proposal made at the CRF convention last year would require disclaimers, a line that said whether the message or bumper sticker had been approved or not by a candidate.

A third idea for counterbalancing independent expenditures is the same for counterbalancing PACs: provide one-for-one tax credits for small political contributions, and raise contribution limits in all federal elections.

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