WASHINGTON — The Senate Tuesday backed away from a showdown vote over a proposal opposed by the GOP leadership that would reform campaign financing by limiting the influence of political action committees.
Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) used the power of his position to remove the measure from the Senate agenda after failing to muster enough votes to table it. Although a majority of GOP members expressed opposition to the proposal, the vote to table it failed by a wide margin, 84 to 7, because most Republicans did not actually want to go on record as foes of campaign reform.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chief sponsor of the proposal, vowed to revive the issue early next year. He said he had obtained assurances from Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, that hearings would be conducted on the subject with the goal of introducing compromise legislation in early 1986.
It was the first time in seven years that the Senate had voted on proposed changes in the current system of campaign financing, which has become a hot issue in some recent political races. Members of the tax-writing committees in Congress came under fire several months ago for accepting $3.7 million in the first half of 1985 from groups trying to influence tax revision.
The proliferation of political action committees frequently is blamed for driving up the cost of political campaigns. In 1984, the average cost of a winning Senate race was $2.9 million--up 385% over 1976--and PACs provided more than half the financing in 163 congressional races.
Even many opponents of the Boren proposal spoke against the growing influence of political action committees, blaming the power of special interest groups for undermining the legislative process. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a supporter of the Boren proposal, said that PACs are responsible for blocking tax reform.
"We are on the verge of a scandal brought on by political action committee funds," Hart said. "In simple terms, PACs have become the toxic waste of American politics."
Provisions of Proposal
Boren's proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), would prohibit any House candidate from accepting more than $100,000 from political action groups in a single election period. The limit on PAC contributions to Senate candidates would range from $175,000 to $750,000, depending on state population.
In addition, each committee would be prohibited from giving more than $3,000 to an individual candidate under the Boren plan, a reduction from the current limit of $5,000. Meanwhile, the limit for individual donors would be raised from $1,000 to $1,500.
The measure also would prohibit PACs from circumventing the $5,000 limit by "bundling" together checks from individuals. According to Boren, one committee disclosed earlier this year that it had donated $150,000 in bundled checks to a single Senate candidate.
Opponents argued that Boren's measure would only succeed in giving more influence to wealthy individual donors. They noted that the laws enacted in the post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s, which gave rise to political action committees, were intended to limit the role of these so-called "fat cats."
"I don't understand why, if a rich person gives $1,000 to my campaign, that's not special interest, but if 100 hardware and farm implements people give $10 each (through a PAC), that's special interest," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).
The measure, which would have taken effect after the 1986 elections, would have allowed candidates to demand equal time from broadcasting stations that air negative advertisements financed through independent expenditures by PACs.
Several other campaign reform measures have been proposed in the Senate, including one endorsed by the Republican leadership that would increase the role of the political parties in fund-raising.