Tobacco industry donates to lawmakers at record rate But some politicians refusing contributions

March 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a bid to win support for sweeping tobacco legislation, the major cigarette producers have showered lawmakers with record campaign contributions, even as some old allies are now swearing off tobacco money.

Tobacco interests pumped $4.5 million into the coffers of federal candidates and national political parties in 1997, an industry record for a nonelection year.

An analysis done for the New York Times by the Campaign Study Group, a research company in Springfield, Va., shows that the industry began stepping up its contributions in 1995 and 1996, with accelerated donations continuing into last year, the most recent for which federal election records are available.

In those years, more than $14 million flowed to the Democratic and Republican national committees, other party committees and the campaign treasuries of candidates who were seeking federal office.

The industry also spent more than $58 million on lobbying over the past two years.

Despite the industry's increased largess and lobbying, prospects for its most important legislative goal, congressional enactment of the $368.5 billion tobacco settlement reached last year, are extremely cloudy, and the industry's public image and political position have never been more precarious.

A lobbying coalition of the five major companies and some public health groups is pushing hard for the legislation, which is intended to curb smoking rates and provide money for public health programs.

In return, cigarette makers would be shielded from some future suits filed by smokers seeking damages for tobacco-related illnesses. The question of future liability is the most controversial part of last year's accord and of any proposed legislation.

In a twist, as the industry gives additional money to federal candidates and to the national parties, it finds itself with fewer and fewer friends.

Even some top recipients of contributions over the past seven years have joined a chorus of industry critics. Other former allies have recently decided to stop taking tobacco money altogether because they view the contributions as tainted.

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has been the top recipient, with $159,416 in contributions from tobacco political action committees and individuals affiliated with the industry since 1991. The contributions have gone to Bliley's campaign committee and to a separate political action committee that he controls.

But Bliley lately has been a thorn in tobacco's side, issuing subpoenas for sensitive industry documents and chastising executives during their testimony over marketing to teen-agers.

It is not surprising that Bliley, who represents a district with a large amount of tobacco business, has received support from cigarette makers. But it is surprising, as well as an indication of the industry's declining muscle, that Bliley feels so free to criticize tobacco interests, given the presence of the Philip Morris Cos.' cigarette plants in his district and the contributions that he has received.

"Rep. Bliley has a long record of standing up for his district," a spokesman for the congressman said. "At the same time, Democrats and Republicans agree he has been scrupulously fair in his conduct of tobacco hearings. He has subpoenaed thousands of documents and refused to rubber-stamp the industry's proposed settlement. He has also long opposed teen-age smoking."

A number of other leading lawmakers who had gratefully accepted the industry's cash have now sworn off tobacco money. Among them is House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who has received the second heaviest support from the tobacco industry, with $130,598 contributed to his campaigns and an affiliated political action committee since 1991. He stopped taking tobacco donations last year.

"He decided it was not appropriate to keep taking their contributions," a spokeswoman, Laura Nichols, said. "He thought they had not done enough to stop kids from smoking."

John McCain, an Arizona Republican, decided not to accept any more tobacco contributions when he became chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last year.

"I knew we'd be involved in these tobacco negotiations and I thought it was appropriate not to take contributions," McCain said in an interview. He received $19,500 in tobacco donations for his election in 1992.

Another lawmaker who has sworn off tobacco money is Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who is chairman of a pivotal House commerce subcommittee on health and the environment. The subcommittee will have a big role in shaping tobacco legislation.

Bilirakis had received a relatively modest $26,300 from tobacco interests before he stopped taking industry contributions in 1995.

Over the past seven years, according to the analysis of tobacco donations, cigarette makers and their employees donated $26.8 million to national party committees and candidates for federal office.

The record set by contributions from tobacco interests was representative of increases overall in campaign giving last year, as candidates for Congress raised $232.9 million, a record for a nonelection year, according to statistics released Friday by the Federal Election Commission.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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