THERE'S a new kind of ``fat cat'' strolling the halls of Congress. Fat cats - wealthy contributors - have greased the wheels of American politics for decades. Now, in an ironic twist, politicians themselves are becoming the newest fat cats.
Congressmen like William Gray III, Henry Waxman, and former Rep. Tony Coelho have sought power on Capitol Hill by calculated contributions to their fellow members' campaigns.
In 1986, for example, Mr. Coelho divvied up almost $570,000 among 245 Democratic House candidates. Not surprisingly, Coelho's fellow Democrats in gratitude promoted him to majority whip, the No. 3 job in the House, a month after the election.
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, has probed this recent phenomenon of leadership contributions in a study, ``The New Fat Cats,'' published by the Twentieth Century Fund.
ONE difference between the new fat cats and the old fat cats: the new ones are not using their own money.
Coelho and other leaders in Congress raise money through their own personal political-action committees. Their personal PACs solicit funds from wealthy contributors and other sources; then, at the congressmen's discretion, the funds are distributed to other members of Congress.
Coelho put together his huge 1986 war chest through his own Valley Education Fund. Mr. Gray has a PAC called the Committee for Democratic Opportunity. Mr. Waxman's fund is the 24th Congressional District of California PAC.
Professor Baker warns that PACs like these, which put financial power into the hands of key congressmen, raise two dangers for good government:
1.They are fragmenting the power of political parties by setting up individual fiefdoms in both the Senate and the House. Contributions are made member to member, not party to member, thus weakening party ties and party responsibility.
2.Huge pools of money under the personal control of congressmen raise fresh concerns about congressional ethics.
Altogether, about 50 leadership PACs have operated on Capitol Hill under the aegis of leading members of Congress, including Robert Byrd, Alan Cranston, John Danforth, Dennis DeConcini, Thomas Foley, Richard Gephardt, Newt Gingrich, John Glenn, Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Ernest Hollings, Edward Kennedy, Richard Lugar, Robert Michel, Dan Rostenkowski, and Jim Wright.
Curiously, much of the money for these personal PACs comes from other PACs - corporate, labor, special interest. Thus, a corporate PAC gives to a congressman's PAC, and the congressman uses the money to buy influence with another member.
Baker says the rise of leadership PACs began with the congressional reforms of the 1970s. It started when the House changed its ways of selecting committee chairmen.
Before reform, Congress had operated on the seniority system. Choice committee chairmanships went automatically to members who had served longest. But in the 1970s, reformers threw out that system and insisted on the election of committee chairs by secret ballot.
Suddenly, ambitious House members needed a way to curry their colleagues' favor to win leadership positions on committees and subcommittees.
The most obvious answer: money.
Baker says the trend toward leadership PACs began with a PAC known as ``Friends of Henry Waxman.'' It was formed in 1978 to aid the efforts of Mr. Waxman, a California congressman, to win the chairmanship of a Commerce subcommittee.
``This ... first leadership political-action committee ... was decisive to Waxman's campaign for the subcommittee chairmanship,'' Baker says.
From there, the trend grew steadily so that in the 1986 elections, leadership PACs doled out $3.5 million in campaign contributions.
While some reformers, such as Craig McDonald of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, find the trend toward leadership PACs disturbing, Baker predicts that the number of such PACs will increase.
Baker cites the example of Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who was long critical of leadership PACs. Eventually, Mr. Obey decided to form a PAC of his own, explaining: ``You can't play touch [football] while the other guy's playing tackle.''
Leadership PACs of Congressional Incumbents
Party/State PAC Name or Title SENATE Rudy Boschwitz R-Minn. Plaid PAC Robert Byrd D-W.Va. Committee for America's Future Thad Cochran R-Miss. Senate Victory Fund PAC Kent Conrad D-N.Dak. Fund for New Leadership Alan Cranston D-Calif. Committee for a Democratic Consensus John Danforth R-Mo. Fund for the Future Committee Dennis DeConcini D-Ariz. Arizona Leadership for America Search
Committee John Glenn D-Ohio National Council on Public Policy Phil Gramm R-Texas Conservative Democratic PAC;
``Boll Weevil PAC'' * Tom Harkin D-Iowa Independent Action Jesse Helms R-N.C. National Congressional Club Ernest Hollings D-S.C. Citizens for a Competitive America Daniel Inouye D-Hawaii Senate Majority Fund J. Bennett Johnston D-La. Pelican PAC Edward Kennedy D-Mass. Fund for a Democratic Majority Frank Lautenberg D-N.J. Campaign for America Richard Lugar R-Ind. Republican Majority Fund James McClure R-Idaho Leadership USA Paul Simon D-Ill. Democracy Fund ** Ted Stevens R-Alaska Fund for a Republican Majority Strom Thurmond R-S.C. Americans for Good Government Lowell Weicker R-Conn. Senate Constitutional Federal PAC Pete Wilson R-Calif. California for America --------------------------------------------------------------------- HOUSE William Clay D-Mo. Congressional Black Caucus PAC Tony Coelho D-Calif. Valley Education Fund Jim Courter R-N.J. Fund for Responsible Leadership Philip Crane R-Ill. Americans for a Constitutional
Congress Robert Dornan R-Calif. American Space Frontier Committee,
American Citizens for Political
Action David Dreier R-Calif. 97th Club Campaign Committee,
California Congress, Republican PAC Ronnie Flippo D-Ala. Responsible Government Fund Thomas Foley D- Wash. House Leadership Fund Richard Gephardt D-Mo. Effective Government Fund Newt Gingrich R-Ga. Conservative Opportunity Society PAC William Gray III D-Pa. Committee for Democratic Opportunity Bill Green R-N.Y. Modern PAC Marvin Leath D-Texas Committee for a Democratic Consensus Bill Lowery R-Calif. American Enterprise PAC Edward Madigan R-Ill. 15th District Committee Edward Markey D-Mass. US Committee Against Nuclear War;
Nat'l Committee for Peace in Central
America Robert Michel R-Ill. Republican Leaders Fund Mary Rose Oakar D-Ohio Economic Security PAC David Obey D-Wis. Committee for a Progressive Congress Claude Pepper D-Fla. Senior PAC Charles Rangel D-N.Y. Committee for the 100th Congress Dan Rostenkowski D-Ill. America's Leaders Fund Charles Stenholm D-Texas Conservative Democratic PAC William Thomas R-Calif. 96th Club Campaign Committee Morris Udall D-Ariz. Independent Action Henry Waxman D-Calif. 24th Congressional District of
California PAC Jim Wright D-Texas Majority Congress Committee Fund for
New Leadership ---------------------------------------------------------------------- * Established while Gramm was still a Democrat and still in the House. ** Used primarily for 1988 Democratic presidential primaries. Source: Federal Election Commission