One certain way to cure P A C fever

Dan Clawson & Alan Neustadtl

January 20, 1993|By Dan Clawson & Alan Neustadtl

If we want to restore democracy, the most important reform i eliminating the influence of money on politics. As long as money talks, campaign contributions will have far more influence than ordinary voters. But many of the reform proposals being discussed would do little or nothing to limit the clout of big money contributors in fact, they arent even intended to do so. Meaningful reform depends on understanding how campaign finance works today, and especially the influence of Political Action Committees, or PACs.

PAC directors insist that their money has little influence on the way a member of Congress votes on key legislation. The directors of the 150th largest PAC told us that We know were not going to buy anybodys vote, were not going to rent anybody, or whatever the cliches have been over the years. The PAC does, however, help them get access, a chance for a private meeting with the senator or representative. As one corporate executive explained: You know, some congresman has got X number of ergs of energy, and heres a person or a company who wants to come see him and give him a thousand dollars, and heres another one who wants to just stop by and say helow. And he only has time to see one. Which one? So the PACs an attention getter.

What happens at these private meetingss between PAC officials and members of Congress? Broad issues of public policy are rarely discussed. Corporations typicaly want the member of Congress to introduce a small change in the bill, one that will never be publicly reported or discussed. One provision, for example, applies only to a corporation incorporated on June 13, 1917, which has its principal place of business in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, that is, Philips Petroleum.k Every year thousands of these provisions are incorporated into bills.

The member of Congress usually incorporates the provision into the bill word for word as the company want it. As one senior vice-president explained to us, once the corporatin has the provision it wants, it doesnt much matter how people vote afterwards because the company will win either way. Corporate CPA directors report that it doesnt cost them much to get access to members of Congress, and that virtually all members of Congress Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives cooperate in this process. Here in Maryland, for example, corporations not only give to conservative Republicans. In the just concluded elections, corporate PACs gave more than $200,000 each to Democrats Barbara Mikulski and Tom McMillen and over $100,000 to Steny Hoyer, in addition to the more expected contributions of $40,000 to Republican incumbents Constance Morella and $24,000 to Thomas Gilchrest. Access to our elected representatives is apparently available cheap the most common PAC contribution is a mere $500 to $1,000.

In this situation, reforms aimed at limiting the size of a PAC contribution to $3,000, instead of the current $5,000, will accomplish virtually nothing. Even completel abolishing PACs is not likely to have the consequences people anticipate. When we asked corporate PAC directors what they would do if PACs were abolished, it never occurred to them we meant what would happen if they couldnt use money to corrupt democracy. They thought we were asking what other ways they had to funnel money into campaigns, and they gave us answers like these:

My salary would go up9 and I would make a lot more personal contributions.

All that would happen is that a member (of Congress) would say to you, I want X thousand dollars, and youd have to get it some other way than through the PAC.

One PAC director proposed that if necessary the company could go back to the old system where you put a whole bag of money together and brought it up to the member and said Here. By the way, not a bad idea Im not sure it was any better or any worse than anything else.

Any viable campaign finance reform requires tht we take these PAC directors seriously. Most proposals rely on multiplying regulations, but the PAC directors can always keep one loophole ahead. As a corporate executive explained, no matter what changes are made in the campaign finance laws, There are ways around it. The system is dynamic. By the time they change it, its too late . . . I can tell you right now how I can give untold sums of corporate money to anybody in the country that I want to give it to.

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