PAC Money's Odor in Campaign Financing
AT the recent Democratic presidential candidates debate, Jerry Brown came across like the proverbial skunk at a garden party. While the others wanted to talk about taxes and health care and such, the former California governor kept lobbing stink bombs about campaign finance reform and the corrupting influence of political action committees (PACs).The response - from other candidates and many pundits - has been patronizing or prickly. A media consultant called Brown "a political terrorist who is very destructive to the Democratic Party and the country, ultimately, because he is taking the focus off George Bush and the economy and the Democratic solutions to the problems that really matter to people." Yes, a lot of social and economic issues do matter to people. But given the miserable voter turnout in this country - barely half - there's something else that really troubles people. That's the belief that those who make the laws increasingly are answerable to special interests whose cash fuels the power of incumbency. This is the feeling behind the term limits movement, and it's what caused more than 5,000 debate viewers to call in when Brown gave his toll-free number to pledge $100 to his campaign (th e most he'll accept). Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey got all huffy and demanded to know if Brown was implying that his vote had been bought just because he accepted PAC money. But as former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire has said, the quid pro quo may not come in a vote. "It may come in a speech not delivered," he said. "It may come in a calling off of a meeting that otherwise would result in advancing legislation. It may come in a minor change in one paragraph in a 240-page bill. It may come in a witness not invited to test ify before a committee. It may come in hiring a key staff member for a committee who is sympathetic to the PAC. Or it may come in laying off or transferring a staff member who is unsympathetic to a PAC." Or as Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has put it more bluntly: "When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government." Asked whether he expected to get something from the five senators he gave money to, Charles Keating of the infamous Lincoln Savings & Loan said, "I certainly hoped so." All of this is illustrated in a recent report by the United States Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) titled "Abuse of Power." The report focuses on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and it shows that over the last six years, 187 PACs with interest in four key energy issues (auto gas mileage, nuclear licensing, oil drilling in Alaska, and reducing global warming) have contributed more than $3 million to committee members. Topping the list of recipients are committee chairman Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, who got $449,369, and ranking Republican Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, with $307,579. The energy bill approved by the committee last May on a 17 to 3 vote was accurately described by Senator Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey (who voted against it) as "an industry wish list that in numerous cases is contrary to the public interest." Bradley himself is the beneficiary of energy-industry PACs ($116,600), as are all committee members. But those who vote pro-industry most of the time clearly get more: an average of $188,893, according to USPIRG, compared with $74,483 for those who don't. (Environmental groups give to committee members too, but only about $1 for every $55 from industry PACs.) USPIRG report authors David Hamilton and Bill Magavern also note that "the seven senators receiving the most money from the energy PACs all voted against the bill passed by the Senate this year to reform the campaign finance system by banning PACs, setting spending limits, and allowing 20 percent voluntary public funding." Of all the PAC money washing over US elections, 90 percent goes to incumbents. It's no wonder that more than 90 percent of all House members running for reelection in 1990 faced no challenger or one who had less than half as much campaign cash. That's the odor coming out of political campaigning today. Not the impoliteness of Jerry Brown.