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Nice PAC you've got here ... a pity if anything should happen to it.


Sen. Rudy Boschwitz prides himself on beingaccessible to all his constituents, often pointing out that his home telephone number is listed in the Minneapolis phone book. But during much of 1986 some constituents had more access than others. Those who had given at least $1,000 to Boschwitz's campaign during the previous five years became members of his "Washington Club' and were given a booklet of blue "special access stamps.' Boschwitz's staff was told to respond to mail with special access stamps faster than the rest of the letters. This summer, after press reports revealed the practice, it stopped.

Of course it should come as no surprise thatlarge contributors enjoy greater access to legislators than those who confine themselves to the more pedestrian forms of support like voting. John Q. Public has always suspected that his call might be returned more slowly than John D. Rockefeller's. But Boschwitz's access stamps illustrate a new brazenness among politicians.

The days of innocent congressmen being corruptedby nefarious PACs and wealthy constituents are gone. It is now the politicians who aggressively pursue the special interests.

The fish go fishing

The phenomenal growth of political actioncommittees has been well documented, their perniciousness well noted. What has been less noted is that candidates now shake down the PACs. "I would guess that 99 percent of PAC contributions are in response to candidates' requests,' says Elaine Mullican, election counsel to the Senate Rules Committee.

The strategies for hitting up PACs have grownincreasingly imaginative and bold. Seven months ago, then-Sen. James Abdnor was involved in a tough primary race. President Reagan had agreed to host a reception for him, but PAC responses to the $1,000-a-plate function were lukewarm. So Abdnor hired couriers to go to 40 PAC offices and present a card soliciting their contributions. The couriers were instructed not to leave an office until they had a response. One PAC representative crumpled the card up and threw it in the courier's face in disgust. That one rebuff notwithstanding, the strategy succeeded: the fund raiser raised $225,000.

After the 1982 elections, successful Democraticsenators gave a workshop for those up for reelection in 1984 on how to influence PACs. One strategy they discussed was playing one PAC against another. "They told us how to go to a bank PAC, for example, and tell them that the savings and loan and insurance PACs were already on board, and that they should contribute too or they would miss out,' says Sen. David Boren, author of legislation to limit PAC contributions. PACs might not believe their contribution will put a legislator in their pockets, but they want to make sure that he or she is not swayed by an economic competitor. "It's a blackmail situation and even the lobbyists and PACs realize it's out of control,' says Boren.

A variation on this theme is to play the jealousyounger sibling, asking the PAC: if you gave to Congressman Blowhard, why can't you give to me? This ploy requires some homework. Typically, a staff member goes to the Federal Election Commission, copies the quarterly PAC contribution reports, and makes note of the congressmen on the same committees as the boss. "If they know Shell is going to one member of the committee, they call up Shell and tell them that their guy's vote is just as important as other committee members',' recalls a former administrative assistant to a Republican congressman. "If your senator is the fourth ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, for example, you get the chairman's list of contributors and then gauge your senator's worth accordingly, proportionate to the chairman's. If a PAC or lobbyist comes into your office or wants an appointment, you tell them "you gave $500 to that senator and only $250 to me.''

It used to be that PACs gave money in orderto assure access; now the candidates demand money as the price for access. Boschwitz and Sen. Charles Grassley both keep lists of the PACs that have contributed to them on their desks for easy reference. The Wall Street Journal recently showed how New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, former chairman of the securities subcommittee, used his ability to block legislation on regulating junk bonds to elicit $33,000 from employees of Drexel Burnham Lambert, one of the leading promoters of such bonds. The Journal quoted one Wall Street lobbyist as saying, "Nothing is enough. It's continuous pressure. If you don't contribute, they don't return your calls.'

The fund-raising pitch can be pretty blunt. "Ifyou say you can't come to an event because you'll be out of town, they say, "We'll tell the senator you don't want to contribute to his campaign,'' says one political consultant who used to manage a PAC. "So then you contribute to his campaign because you don't want to be on a shit list. To raise money you have to ask for it, and if you ask more, you get more.'

The bigger the fish, the more bait he or shecan demand. Many PACs complained that Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood used his position and the impending tax reform bill to raise campaign funds. Packwood, for example, asked real estate brokers to hold "real estate industry nights' to raise money for him. The real estate industry was among the industries most petrified in 1985 and 1986 by the prospect of tax reform.

One California legislator told a Californiacommission investigating electoral reforms that during one of the panel's hearings, instead of listening to the testimony, he had been making lists of who might contribute $1,000 to his next fund raiser. "If you're a legislator it has got to cross your mind: a rent control bill is coming up, and it's important to the real estate brokers, landowners, and developers,' says Roger Carrick, an aide to former California Gov. Jerry Brown. "So you call ten PACs the day before the vote and invite them all to a fund raiser. A friendly phone call. . . . The potential for corruption is enormous and more people are driven over the edge.'

The same tactics apply toward honoraria, thegifts organizations give legislators as "speaking fees.' One executive at an electric company says, "Many times candidates call us up and say, "I'd like to come by and see your plant.' That means "invite us to give a talk and pay us an honorarium,' and we usually do.' Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. tells a similar tale. "I know staffers for congressmen that call ahead when their boss is coming into a town and tell PACs and corporations: "he needs honoraria while he's there, and he expects to get them.' The only reason that's not called bribery is because the congressmen are the ones that decide what constitutes bribery.'

The rise of candidate-sponsored PACs haveadded yet another new twist. Candidates now set up their own PACs, raise money, and distribute it among their colleagues, winning friends along the way. "When members start raising money for other people, saying, "I want you to give money to my friend,' it makes everyone uncomfortable,' says Boren. "You're placed in a position of not just turning down one senator, but any others he's raising money for.'

Legislators now hound PACs with such intensityand persistence that one can almost feel sorry for the PACs.

Charles Frazier, Washington director of theNational Farmer's Organization, a small PAC, says he gets as many as 100 invitations a week, ten times the number he used to. "What bothers me most, though, is that some congressmen have my home address and they solicit me there. It's annoying to come home after work and find a whole mailbox full of them,' Frazier says.

The PAC solicitation process has becomeroutinized and mechanized. Congressional staff members keep close tabs on organizations that write or call the legislator, storing any names in the potential contributors file of their computer. The National Asphalt Pavement Association disbanded its PAC four years ago, in part, they say, because they were tired of being swamped with requests. "We still get ten invitations a day,' says the organization's president, John Gray. Sen. Bob Graham's campaign corresponded regularly with more than 1,000 PACs, sending them the latest polls, FEC reports, and press clips.

In general, PACs are likely to be kept informedof the date of the next fund raiser--even if the PAC doesn't share the concerns or positions of the legislator. The Consumer Federation of America, for example, this year received several mailings from Rep. Joe Skeen. The Federation gave Skeen a lifetime rating of 14 percent on consumer issues, yet his letters always begin, "Because your organization and I share the same concerns and we have worked together on issues affecting my constituents and your members, I thought you'd be interested in the enclosed material.'

Bucking opponents

The principal reason for this aggressiveness isobvious and has been well-covered by the media: the cost of campaigns has skyrocketed. The total amoung spent on U.S. Senate races in 1986 was $140 million, twice the amount in 1980. House candidates spent $146 million in 1986, compared to $117 million in 1980.

But most incumbents aggressively raise theirmoney not to finance tough elections, but to avoid them. A hefty war chest can help them avoid contested elections altogether by scaring off potential opponents. That's one reason more than 95 percent of the incumbents won their last election. Not coincidentally, 83 percent of all PAC contributions to House races went to incumbents. Incumbents seeking job security now farm the increasingly fertile PAC fields; there were roughly 4,400 PACs at last count.

In addition, candidates with extra money cangain themselves power in Congress by using their campaign committees or personal PACS to funnel contributions, the 1980s equivalent of Lyndon Johnson greasing his path to congressional power by funneling campaign contributions to colleagues.

A final reason for high-pressure fund-raisingis the need to maintain a certain lifestyle. "You can live a fancy life in D.C. or not,' says Jacobs. "It's your choice to have noce dinners, hire caterers, and be served by guys in jackets, but that's a heck of an expense. Politicians need money to keep up with lifestyles that aren't really necessary. But it's like taking drugs. Accepting money leads to an addiction.'

More than ever before, legislators focus on raisingmoney, now spending as much time fundraising as legislating. Keith Abbott, finance director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, advises Democratic candidates for the Senate to spend at least 50 percent of their time raising money.

The late Rep. Phillip Burton warned againstthe current situation during the debates about the 1974 electoral reforms. "We are the ones who are going to be corrupted,' Burton said. "The enemy is going to be us.'

When politicians start to see a dollar signbehind every vote, every phone call, every solicitation, those other factors sometimes weighed during governance, like the public good and equal access to government, become less and less important.
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Title Annotation:political action committee
Author:Dockser, Amy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1987
Previous Article:Enterprise and double cross; at the heart of America's industrial decline is a culture of mistrust.
Next Article:Faith, hope, and chicanery; want to do some good? Ask your favorite charity where it spends its money.

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