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The Pac Man Cometh

ISSUE:  Summer 1985
PAC Power: Inside The World of Political Action Committees. By Larry J. Sabato. Norton. $15.95.

Politics seems to breed demons, or at least the perception of demons. They come in many forms. One is political consultants, that tribe of pollsters, strategists, and direct mail wizards who are supposed to have surreptitiously seized control of elections at nearly every level in this country. Book after breathless book has warned against these hidden persuaders, the latest being Hidden Power by British journalist Roland Perry. He concludes that political consultants are not only assuming an ominously large role in politics and policy but “will dictate the direction of nations and the world.” From this, it’s only a short jump to believing that political consultants are visitors from outer space. But fortunately, there was one book, The Rise of Political Consultants, that looked at the phenomenon with something other than a hysterical, they’re-taking-over attitude. It found some drawbacks to the advent of consultants as a political force. But no demons. The author of that book was Larry J.Sabato, an associate professor of government at the University of Virginia.

Now, Sabato has done for political action committees, PACs, what he did for political consultants. No, he has not rushed to their defense, though PACs could surely use a little defending against hostile media coverage and attacks by the Ralph Nader-Common Cause axis. Rather Sabato has coldly examined the way PACs operate—labor PACs, business PACs, conservative PACs, liberal PACs—and what their impact has been on American politics. He has found a few serious problems with PACs, most of them old ones having to do with the venerable and enduring role of money in politics. But no demons. If you want proof that PACs are responsible for the conservative drift in the country by their lavish funding of right-wing candidates or that PACs are buying votes in Congress through campaign contributions, look elsewhere. Sabato doesn’t indulge in nonsense like that.

What Sabato does is skewer virtually every popular conception about PACs, from the notion that they have introduced a fundamentally new element into American politics to the idea that they deal in legalized bribery. True, PACs funnel millions and millions of dollars to candidates in House, Senate, and other races who might otherwise not have entered the political stream. “Yet the growth in PAC contributions must also be seen within the context of American campaign financing as a whole.” Sabato writes. “Not just PAC gifts but every other kind of campaign donation was on the increase through the 1970’s and early 1980’s. . . . Yet well under half the average gain in each election cycle can be traced to the PAC spending boom because contributions by individuals and political parties were also on the upswing.”

Sabato persuasively challenges the idea that PACs are largely a right-wing effort, with businessmen and conservative zealots marshalling huge sums to oust liberal politicians from office and install unswerving rightists. Conservatives got a head start in the PAC field, as organizations like the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) realized as early as the mid-1970’s that they could be a pivotal factor in some elections. But PACs of one ideology quickly spur the growth of PACs promoting the opposite. “Conservatives were quickest to organize, and some of their PACs continue to dominate fundraising in the ideological sphere,” he notes. “But the left clearly has stirred itself with the formation of new groups such as Democrats for the ’80s and Independent Action to complement the work of the well-established liberal PAC, the National Committee for an Effective Congress. More specialized liberal groups are also bringing a balance to PAC spending.”

In fact, the balance may be tilted in favor of liberals, if only because of the activity of PACs run by organized labor. Nearly every union has a PAC, and the AFL-CIO’s PAC, the Committee on Political Education, has for decades been the most influential PAC of all. Of course, spending figures suggest that labor PACs have been left behind in clout. “By 1982 business-related PACs were outspending labor in direct contributions to congressional campaigns by nearly three to one,” Sabato says. “From providing half of all PAC contributions in 1974, labor accounted for less than a quarter (24 percent) in 1980 and 1982.” But this does not take into account labor’s other political activities, such as direct communications with its membership, providing campaign volunteers, and conducting voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. “In 1976 COPE’s 120,000 volunteers, 10 million phone calls, and 80 million pieces of literature on behalf of the Democratic presidential ticket were worth an estimated $8.5 million,” Sabato writes. “By 1984 the AFL-CIO’s presidential endorsement of Democrat Walter Mondale was being assigned a price tag of $5—$8 million just for its prenomination value.” That is nothing to sneer at. “These additional expenditures enable labor to compete with business on more even—or perhaps superior—terms.”

But what about these independent expenditure campaigns directed by outfits like NCPAC at liberal members of Congress? Aren’t these the cutting edge of the PAC movement? Not quite, answers Sabato. For all the press attention that has been given them, PACs making independent expenditures— an example was NCPAC’s TV commercials in 1980 against a half-dozen liberal Democratic senators, four of whom lost— are a “relatively minor part of campaign finance in the United States,” Sabato says.”It assumes disproportionate importance because it draws the attention of the press and politicians with its often negative, hard-hitting character.” But the negative tactics used by NCPAC have backfired as often as they have worked. In 1982, Sen. Daniel P.Moynihan of New York made NCPAC a high-visibility foil as he gathered the support of once-critical liberals, averted a primary challenge, and romped to a landslide reelection. Another Democratic liberal, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, did roughly the same thing to win reelection in Maryland the same year. And now NCPAC is, of all things, turning more to the use of positive advertising for candidates it favors instead of negative spots against its foes.

The most serious accusation against PACs is that they allow special interests, businessmen in particular, to make political contributions which are sure to prod an elected official to vote their way. In other words, PACs buy votes. Only that’s usually not the case, responds Sabato, even in the supposedly flagrant instances often cited by Nader and Common Cause as proof that PAC money buys a congressman’s vote. The defeat of President Jimmy Carter’s hospital cost containment bill in 1977 has been attributed by Common Cause, the liberal citizens’ group, to PAC campaign donations by the American Medical Association’s PAC.Of the 234 House members who voted for a crippling amendment to the bill, 202 had been given a total of $1.65 million in contributions in 1976 and 1978, an average of $8,100 per member. Another 122 congressmen who voted against the amendment got doctors’ money, an average of $2,300 each. “Yet as conclusive as these statistics seem on the surface, there is no ‘smoking gun’; a correlation does not prove causation,” says Sabato.

Studies by political scientists on alleged vote buying are mixed. One examined contributions by the dairy lobby in 1974 and found little effect on the milk price support vote by congressmen. Another studied the impact of PAC contributions on seven bills, and discovered a positive relationship in only one case. Still another concluded that contributions by the PACs of the AMA and American Dental Association affected the vote by the House that exempted doctors, dentists, and lawyers from regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. But this vote got little press coverage at the time. Once the issue began to draw attention in the Senate, the exemption lost. That example substantiates one of Sabato’s judgments about the PAC contributions: “the more invisible the issue, the more likely that PAC funds can change or produce congressional votes on it.” As a corollary to this rule, Sabato insists that “PAC money has more effect on the early stages of the legislative process, such as agenda setting and votes in subcommittee meetings, than on late and more public floor deliberations.”

While PACs do give the donors access and influence with legislators on some occasions, “it is worth stressing, however, that most congressmen are not unduly influenced by PAC money on most votes,” he says. “The special conditions I have outlined do not apply to most legislative issues. Other considerations—foremost among them a congressman’s party affiliation, his ideology, and his constituents’ needs and desires—are the overriding factors in determining a legislator’s votes.” Both business and labor PACs have suffered miserable legislative failures despite the money they have pumped to a majority of members of Congress. Business assaults on “the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Freedom of Information Act, among others, have fallen short in recent years,” Sabato notes. “Similarly, labor has suffered humiliating congressional defeats on issues such as labor law reform and common situs picketing even when Democrats retained large majorities in both houses.”

Sabato suggests some reforms that would make PACs more democratic and responsible. And he would take away the tax advantage, which encourages voters to donate money to PACs rather than directly to political parties. But his recommendations are small stuff. The thrust of his definitive book is that the PACs are not destroying politics and political parties as we know them. They may not be the finest thing that has happened to American politics in the 20th century, but they hardly warrant hand-wringing by goo-goo groups and now-it-can-be-told exposes by the press. PACs are here to stay, says Sabato, and they need to be watched. But stay calm and forget about demons.


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