PACs threaten grass-roots democracy. Oklahoma's Boren warns that voters at home are losing ground to lobbies
Washington — Sen. David L. Boren used to teach political science. This week he is giving his colleagues a quiz in campaign reform. The amiable Oklahoma Democrat is forcing his colleagues to take a stand on the always delicate question of fund raising.
The reformist Senator Boren has pushed for years for a curb on the mushrooming political-action committees (PACs) that are increasingly providing special-interest money to congressional candidates. This year he has an impressive set of allies, ranging from conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona to liberal Democrat Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan.
``We have broad support all across the ideological landscape,'' says Boren. He has won an agreement from his fellow senators for a vote Tuesday on his proposal to cut PAC contributions while lifting the cap on individual donations to candidates.
Less than a month ago, Boren had only a handful of votes. But as he worked the phones during his Thanksgiving break at home, expectations rose. An aide says that a majority is almost within grasp.
Boren insists on action now, despite calls from some to delay the reform effort. ``The longer we wait to address it, the harder it's going to be to ever change it. I've used the analogy of drug addiction.''
The Oklahoman says that as ``more and more members of Congress'' raise half or more of their campaign money from PACs, ``the harder it's going to be to ever get those members of Congress to clean up the election system -- to deprive themselves of that source of money.''
PACs, which range from groups of realtors or labor union members to abortion opponents, gave about $113 million to 1984 congressional candidates. A decade ago, such ``special-interest groups'' gave only $12.5 million.
``We had 163 members elected to Congress last year who received more than half of all their campaign contributions from political-action committees headquartered principally outside their own states,'' says Boren, adding that most PACs are run by Washington lobbyists. ``And that causes you to ask, do the grass-roots people back there in that district really have a member of Congress anymore, or is that member likely to be more responsive to the lobbyists in Washington?''
Boren is one of only 13 members of Congress who accept no PAC contributions. ``I feel very strongly that our political process ought to be one of grass-roots democracy. How in the world can we be surprised that Congress has such a hard time acting in the national interest when more and more of its campaign funds are coming from special-interest groups. . . ?''
Supporters of PACs counter that the groups encourage more citizen participation. Boren calls that a phony argument. He says that ``those who contribute to PACs are much less politically knowledgeable'' than people who donate money to candidates on their own.
Boren's proposal would limit to $100,000 the PAC funds a House candidate could accept. Limits for Senate candidates would vary according to state population from a low of $175,000 to a high of $750,000.
The plan would also lower from $5,000 to $3,000 the amount of money each PAC could donate to a single candidate. Individuals, who can now give $1,000, would be allowed to give up to $1,500.
Boren's measure would also outlaw ``bundling'' checks from individuals, presenting the entire lot to a candidate -- a practice PACs use to get around contribution limits.
Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, campaign committee chairman for the Senate GOP, has sent a letter to his colleagues objecting to the Boren plan. The Pennsylvanian objects in particular to the proposal coming up for a vote before the Senate holds any specific hearings on its possible effects.
A spokesman for Senator Heinz points out that the reform law of 1974 attempted to restructure campaign financing but instead has been largely responsible for the rapid growth in PAC spending. ``Now we are going to vote on a major reform and not even look at the consequences,'' says the aide.
Heinz and other Republicans want to play down PACs by removing limits on the amount of money political parties can give to candidates' campaigns. Heinz is now considering such a substitute to Boren's proposal. But his plan would never be accepted by Democrats because the GOP is far more successful at party fund raising.
Meanwhile, some liberals are objecting to the Boren plan because they say it does not go far enough.
``I think it's awfully thin soup,'' says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois. ``Its impact would be extremely limited. It has the uncomfortable feature of making people believe that they're really doing something.''
Senator Simon is co-sponsoring a bill that would effectively cut all PACs out of general elections for senators by providing federal campaign financing.