WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday moved to check the growing power of special interest groups over federal elections as it endorsed a Democratic plan to cut the size and scope of contributions that candidates can accept from political action committees.
The 69-30 vote for the proposal of Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) marked the first time lawmakers had endorsed any tightening of Watergate-inspired campaign laws, which backers a decade ago had hoped would block candidates from taking huge sums from corporations and individuals.
Despite the development, however, final Senate action on the measure was delayed and its fate was unclear. Backers and opponents of the plan continued to negotiate over refinements, but skeptics doubted the bill could get through both houses of Congress before it adjourns for the year, if Senate action is delayed for long. Congressional leaders hope to adjourn for the year in early October.
One critic, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), accused colleagues of voting for the bill to look like bold reformers even while hoping "it would not become law."
Under the Boren plan, the lid on contributions by a PAC to a candidate would be trimmed from $5,000 to $3,000 and loopholes would be closed that have let PACs get around the ceiling. The limit on contributions by individuals would be raised from $1,000 to $1,500.
More significantly, though, House candidates generally would be barred from accepting more than $100,000 from PACs during any two-year election cycle, while limits on Senate candidates would range from $175,000 to $750,000 depending on the size of their state. The measure, if it became law, would affect financing of 1988 campaigns but would have no impact on current races.
California Republican Sen. Pete Wilson voted for the Boren proposal, but Sen. Alan Cranston opposed it, the only Democrat in the chamber up for reelection this year to do so. As of June 30, Cranston had taken in $870,000 in PAC contributions in his race against Republican Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Los Altos), more than would be allowed under the Boren plan and more than any other incumbent Democrat in the country.
Favors Public Financing
Cranston said he wants to see the current system scrapped and replaced by taxpayer-supported public financing to even the odds between candidates.
Critics complain that campaign costs have skyrocketed since PACs came into prominence. For example, Boren said the average winning candidate for the U.S. Senate spent $2.9 million in 1984, up from $600,000 only eight years earlier. PAC contributions to congressional candidates rose from $12 million in 1974 to $104 million in 1984, he noted.
"We're being pounded by a tidal wave of special interests," Boren said.
After approval of the Boren plan, the Senate voted 58 to 42 for a Republican-sponsored amendment to outlaw PAC contributions to national political party organizations as well as to require party groups to disclose the sources of other non-PAC funds that at present they can keep secret.