PACs holding off on big-money support in this year of political uncertainties

April 26, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In this most turbulent of political years, special interest groups are putting their big-money support on hold.

A record number of House retirements, the uncertainties of congressional redistricting and the House bank scandal all are converging to make 1992 one of the most volatile political years in memory.

As a result, many political action committees are reluctant to sign that check until the political fog lifts, or the voters speak.

"We've been advising them to do this," said Bernadette Budde, vice president of Business Industry-PAC. "We've asked [PACs] to ask themselves how much money they can afford to waste."

But some PACs are finding a sure-fire way to prevent wasting their contributions on losers: Wait until you have a winner.

This year, two successful congressional candidates in Maryland -- Del. Thomas H. Hattery and state Sen. Albert R. Wynn -- found interest-group givers reluctant to offer support because Mr. Hattery was taking on a longtime incumbent and Mr. Wynn was in a crowded field of candidates in a newly created district.

"There's no question they had a lot of questions about my viability," said Mr. Hattery, who had to furnish PACs with his polling data, campaign plans and how much he had raised from individual contributors "to show them we had a real shot at winning."

That reluctance vanished after Mr. Hattery defeated seven-term Democratic Rep. Beverly B. Byron of Frederick and Mr. Wynn captured the Democratic nomination from a dozen other Democrats in last month's primary.

Mr. Hattery picked up 40 percent -- $27,000 -- of his contributions from political action committees after he won. "Nothing shows viability like winning," he said.

And Mr. Wynn found his PAC money rose 32 percent -- by $15,750, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records, covering February and March.

Special interest money has become an ever increasing part of the financing of federal elections in recent years, as well as a major target of reformers who want to reduce the influence of political action committees in federal elections.

Under current law, individual voters may contribute no more than $1,000 per election to a candidate, but PACs can give up to $5,000. Both the House and Senate versions of campaign finance reform this year would curb PAC contributions, but President Bush is expected to veto any measure that reaches his desk.

Over the years, PACs have given ever larger proportions of their money to incumbents, including those who do not agree with the PACs' political aims, because of a greater than 95 percent re-election rate.

Some advocacy groups have long seen PAC contributions as akin to legalized bribes. Jay Hedlund, director of grass-roots lobbying for Common Cause, calls them "a tool by lobbying interests to get legislative favors."

A recent study by Common Cause, which advocates public financing of campaigns, found that in 1991, House members' PAC contributions increased 22 percent over 1989.

PAC contributions in 1991 to the 393 representatives seeking re-election made up almost half the money they raised, or $33.7 million of a total of $69.6 million. Out of 435 House members, 219 picked up at least half their 1991 campaign funds from PACs, the study found.

Some PACs are skittish about getting involved in any primary fights or with new candidates, fearing their gifts will be wasted on losing prospects.

"PACs are betting on sure shots," said Donna Edwards, staff attorney for Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group. "If it's close, they sort of hedge their bets and wait until after."

But in this politically turbulent year, special interests appear to be even more wary.

"The giving will be a little lighter," said Ms. Budde of BI-PAC, which of fers political education seminars to hundreds of business PACs, along with cash support to pro-business candidates. BI-PAC has contributed to about a half-dozen candidates, less than half the number it usually backs at this point in the congressional election year, she said.

Ms. Budde said the reluctance to contribute stems from congressional redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of district lines that often leaves Congress members vulnerable on new political turf. Other factors include the record number of House retirements -- 50 so far -- which often produce a flurry of untested and unknown candidates to fill the seat, and the House bank scandal, which is transforming once popular House members into electoral question marks.

"We're going to hold off until redistricting," said Desiree Anderson, PAC director for the National Association of Realtors, which has contributed about $400,000 less to candidates so far this election cycle than two years ago.

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