Three outpace state colleagues in money received


September 19, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the winter of 1990, Rep. Tom McMillen suddenly began picking up lucrative support from some new-found friends.

The New York State Electric & Gas Corp. PAC gave $1,000 to the Anne Arundel County congressman's re-election campaign. Pacific Gas and Electric's PAC donated $2,500 and Southwestern Bell's PAC kicked in $2,000.

Mr. McMillen, elected to Congress in 1986, had never before received support from these or 22 other utility and telecommunications PACs (political action committees), according to a review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records.

What caused this outpouring of generosity? On Feb. 27, 1990, the congressman was awarded a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, with subcommittee assignments dealing with energy and power as well as telecommunications issues.

A similar burst of largess followed Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's 1990 ascension to the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. The Baltimore Democrat, selected for subcommittees dealing with health and Social Security, for the first time won financial backing from the Health Industry Distributors PAC ($850), Invacare Corp. PAC ($1,500) and the American Association for Respiratory Care PAC ($500), along with a dozen other health-related PACs.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer also saw his PAC donations steadily increase after he was named in 1983 to the Appropriations Committee -- which doles out federal money -- and his 1989 elevation to Democratic Caucus chairman, fourth in line to the House speaker.

It's no surprise that these three congressmen consistently outpace their Maryland congressional colleagues in PAC receipts. On Capitol Hill, a powerful committee assignment greatly increases a congressman's ability to attract special interest money.

Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Ways and Means Committee receive the highest amount of PAC donations, according to Larry Makinson, author of "Open Secrets, The Encyclopedia of Congressional Money and Politics."

The Energy and Commerce Committee's sprawling legislative sweep covers everything from corporate takeovers to nuclear power plants and pesticide residues on food. And the tax legislation coming out of the Ways and Means Committee can mean hundreds of millions of dollars to a company.

As a result, special interest groups take a keen interest in forming a relationship with members of those committees. It's also a two-way street. Committee members expect "and in some cases demand" more in PAC donations, said Steven F. Stockmeyer, executive vice president of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees.

A study last year by Common Cause, the campaign-reform lobby group, of the period from 1981 through 1990 found that 20 of the 33 top recipients of business PAC donations served on either Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means.

And in a study released this year, Common Cause listed Mr. McMillen among the 16 incumbents who raised more than $200,000 in PAC money during 1991. The congressman has raised $469,163 from PACs between January 1991 and June 1992 -- the most recent numbers available from the FEC.

"The PAC directors definitely want to [donate to] people on committees of importance to them. They're buying access and they're buying a relationship," said Alan Neustadtl, a University of Maryland sociologist and co-author of the book "Money Talks, Corporate PACs and Political Influence."

But the three Maryland lawmakers downplay the influence of PACs, and they quickly note they have backed legislation designed to curb PAC power in campaigns.

"I'm pretty accessible," said Mr. Hoyer, who collected $525,029 in PAC contributions between January 1991 and June 1992. "I don't think [a contribution] gets them greater access."

Mr. Hoyer conceded that his position helps in his campaign, but attributed the sharp increase in PAC money to more aggressive fund raising on his part, owing to his new district that includes Southern Maryland.

"The point is, it's easier to raise PAC funds from guys you have a relationship with in your committee work," said Mr. Cardin, who collected $217,813 in PAC money between January 1991 and June 1992.

All three Maryland congressmen backed the campaign finance bill that passed Congress last spring and was vetoed, as promised, by President Bush.

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