Huge appetites for PAC dollars Money: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers' days are crammed with parties designed to attract millions in contributions from political action committees, or PACs.

Campaign 1996

September 26, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's social schedule last Thursday evening read like an exercise regimen: five congressional fund-raisers in 2 1/2 hours.

"And that's light," said Bartlett as he dropped by a reception for fellow Maryland GOP Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "It can be 10 or 12" events a night.

With the election six weeks away, September is money time on Capitol Hill.

In almost ritualistic fashion, lobbyists travel from reception to reception, eating everything from deli meat to baklava while chatting with senators and congressmen.

There are at least 45 fund-raisers scheduled for Democratic congressmen alone this month, with tickets ranging from $250 to $1,000.

The calendar for Republican challengers and incumbents this week runs 7 1/2 pages.

The events range from simple meet-and-greet buffet affairs to theme parties and golf tournaments.

Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Democrat who represents Key West, Fla., has held a "Key West Fantasy Fest" in the past with jugglers and a Hemingway look-alike contest.

Organizers once mailed coconuts to remind people of the party, but some leaked and soiled congressional mail.

The receptions are designed to attract millions in contributions from political action committees (PACs), many of which have headquarters here.

PACs draw their funds from interest groups, ranging from teachers and health care administrators to steel workers and gun rights advocates. They generally target their resources toward incumbents who support their views.

As of August, almost a quarter of all contributions to House and Senate candidates -- $107 million -- came from PACs.

PAC contributions rose from $20.4 million in 1976 to $172.9 million in 1994, says Common Cause, an organization that promotes reform of campaign finance laws.

For PACs and the lobbyists who push their agendas, the receptions are an opportunity to remind legislators who their friends are.

For politicians, PACs can provide a quick infusion of cash in the final weeks of a race when it may be needed most.

"Your money will be put to good use on TV next week," Ehrlich told guests at his luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club last week.

The fund-raisers are legal, but citizen watchdog groups say the practice gives lobbyists greater access to legislators and an unfair advantage over average citizens.

"On Monday a lobbyist is at a congressman's fund-raiser and on Wednesday the lobbyist will be in the office of that member looking for a vote or an amendment or a legislative favor," said Donald Simon, executive vice president of Common Cause.

Attempts to reduce PAC influence have not fared well. Opponents of a Senate bill that would have outlawed PACs prevented the measure from being brought to a vote in June.

"It's hard to say no to money that gives you a huge advantage in the election," said Daniel Pontious, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, which also advocates campaign finance reform.

Lawmakers deny that money influences their decisions and say that contributions from groups on both sides of an issue often cancel each other out.

Republican freshmen who have been targeted by negative labor union television advertisements this year say they need the money to fight back.

And many congressmen call fund-raising a necessary evil in an era when the price of television time has driven the cost of modest congressional campaigns into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I hate fund-raising," said Bartlett, who held a PAC fund-raiser Tuesday. "It's demeaning. But you have to do it to be here."

If this month's slew of receptions sounds glamorous or fun, most on Capitol Hill don't seem to think so. Lobbyists and politicians approach the social season as an obligatory foot race in which pacing is essential.

When Mike Hogan, a lobbyist who represents nursing homes, first began working here 10 years ago, he put on 20 pounds. These days, he limits himself to juice or coffee at breakfast

fund-raisers and doesn't drink alcohol.

"In September and June when they are trying to get their Federal Election Commission reports up, scales tip all over Washington," said Hogan. The receptions, scheduled before the filing deadlines for finance statements, help increase contribution levels, which reporters and opponents use to gauge a candidate's strength.

Ehrlich's fund-raiser, which Hogan attended, was a modest affair. The food and drink included sandwiches, pastries, cake, pasta salad, soda and iced tea.

Hogan said he came to the $500-per-person luncheon because Ehrlich is particularly helpful on nursing home issues. He said Ehrlich recently sponsored a measure that would remove a federal regulation that requires nursing homes to check residents for mental health problems not only when they enter the facilities but also on an annual basis.

If enacted, the proposal would save the federal government $35 million and make life less cumbersome for his clients, Hogan said.

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