PAC foes seek to cap dollars for candidates

The influence of ''PAC men'' - not the video-game characters, but members of political action committees - is being countered by groups that want to cap the flow of dollars from these special-interest groups to candidates for public office.

Despite considerable support for some type of changes in campaign financing regulations, there is little agreement, even in political circles, as to what should be done.

This was apparent at a recent public hearing held by a congressional panel in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, where a parade of witnesses, including Archibald Cox, chairman of Common Cause and former Watergate prosecutor, threw their weight behind various campaign funding reforms.

Of particular attention was a bill backed by Common Cause to restrict the amount of money that a candidate for the US House of Representatives could accept from PACs. Another spotlight was a Republican-sponsored measure aimed at increasing the amount that political parties can donate to their congressional candidates.

Professor Cox noted that the number of special-interest groups that contributed to various campaigns has increased from 608 in 1974 to 3,371 last year.

In last year's congressional elections, PACs chipped in a record $83.4 million of the $343.9 million raised by various candidates. Cox says such special-interest involvement tends to ''breed cynicism, and represents government to citizens as a great rip-off.''

Charging that ''our system of representative government is under attack'' because of the growing contributions of PACs, Cox warns that the current system allows such groups ''to gain disproportionate access to lawmakers in order to influence decisions in Congress.''

He notes that major campaign reforms were passed in 1974, when ''Americans took the presidency off the auction block'' through partial public campaign financing.

PAC activists, who did not speak at the Boston hearing, say they oppose anything that might restrict their ''right to fully participate in congressional campaigns.''

Peter Kennerdell of the corporation-supported Public Affairs Council says the political action groups are a ''positive force for good government.'' He says his association is encouraging its members to help set up PACs.

He denies that the influence such groups exert is not in the best interest of the nation. ''This is a perfectly legitimate thing,'' Mr. Kennerdell says. If a House candidate remains free to accept contributions from any number of PACs, he or she is unlikely to feel beholden to any one interest group, he says.

Common Cause favors restricting to $90,000 the amount a House candidate can accept in total PAC contributions. It also wants to expand federal election funding to include congressional candidates, not just presidential ones.

Both of these features are embraced in legislation filed last spring by Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin and cosponsored by 103 House members.

The New England branch of Common Cause presented the congressional panel with 53,493 signatures supporting the proposed Clean Campaign Act.

Any such legislation, as Cox views it, ''should make it easier for individual candidates to obtain the money necessary to run effective campaigns, without great personal wealth, spending exhaustive months in fund raising, and without reliance on PACs or other special-interest money.''

The congressional panel also heard testimony, mostly from spokesmen for the Republican National Committee and GOP activist groups, in support of legislation filed by Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada and Rep. Bill Frenzel (R) of Minnesota to strengthen the party role in campaign financing.

This bill and the Obey proposal are among a dozen campaign-reform measures pending before the House Elections Task Force, a subcommittee of the Committee on Administration.

The July 8 Boston hearing was the first of a series of scheduled sessions to be held in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 22, Seattle on Aug. 23, and Atlanta sometime in October.

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