WASHINGTON — Incumbent senators have collected nearly $100 million from special interest groups in the 14 years since public reporting began, a study showed Thursday as the Senate opened hearings on bills to sharply curb such contributions and provide partial taxpayer funding for some congressional candidates.
Although money from special-interest political action committees has grown steadily, it soared dramatically in the last two years, according to the study conducted for the Los Angeles Times. For example, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who leads all senators in PAC receipts, raised $1.6 million of his $3 million career total while running for reelection in 1986 and for President in 1988.
Similarly, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who ranks fourth on the Senate's PAC funds list and heads all Democrats, garnered $1.4 million during his successful bid for reelection last year, bringing his career total to $2.1 million.
Donations Since 1972
The study, based on records at the Federal Election Commission, covered all PAC donations since 1972 for senators now in office, including money some received when they were House members and other money that went to committees set up to advance presidential campaigns.
The grand total for 98 senators through last Dec. 31 was $99,370,171. Two senators, David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and William Proxmire (D-Wis.), do not accept PAC contributions.
Armed with a multitude of such figures, Boren appeared at a Senate Rules Committee hearing Thursday and deplored "out of control" campaign spending that he said is being fueled by a "tidal wave of special interest money."
Boren and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) have introduced far-reaching legislation that would clamp down on PAC contributions and extend the current system of public financing of presidential elections to the congressional level.
Byrd told the committee that campaign reform is at the top of a list of bills that he hopes the Senate will pass this year. Committee member Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a sponsor of the Boren-Byrd measure along with 28 other Democrats and two Republicans, said he is "optimistic for the first time in 10 years" that sweeping changes will be made in campaign finance law.
Meets Stiff Resistance
However, the Boren-Byrd bill met stiff resistance at the hearing from committee Chairman Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), ranking committee Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Although he called for controls on campaign costs and "negative" television ads, Ford said that Boren and Byrd's proposal to give taxpayer funds to congressional candidates "may be the Achilles heel" of their bill because public opinion polls show strong opposition to the idea.
Boren responded that he reluctantly included the provision because it was the only practical way to get around a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits spending limits unless they are tied to public financing. Under his bill, a candidate could receive public funds for part of his campaign costs if he agreed to a spending limit that would vary from state to state.
Frantic Quest for Money
Boren complained that escalating campaign costs have driven lawmakers into a frantic quest for PAC money that not only threatens their legislative independence but also forces them to shirk their official duties.
Stevens suggested that it would be better to press for a constitutional amendment that would override the Supreme Court ruling and permit the imposition of spending limits. Boren and Byrd said they back the idea but that it would take a long time to accomplish and that other remedies are needed in the meantime.
Stevens also called it wrong to assert that PACs formed by business, labor and ideological groups "represent narrow interests" or "have taken over the political process." He said that participation in politics has greatly expanded as PACs have multiplied and that increasing numbers of people donate money to the committees, which in turn make contributions to candidates.
The Boren-Byrd measure would reduce the size of a PAC's maximum contribution from $5,000 to $3,000 per election and limit total PAC gifts to a candidate. Those limits would be $100,000 for House candidates and would range from $175,000 to $750,000 for Senate candidates, depending on a state's population size.
'Worthy Peace PACs'
In an interview, Cranston supported partial public financing of congressional races but opposed reducing PAC limits so low that some "worthy peace and environmental PACs" would be precluded from having sufficient influence--and some candidates would be deprived of enough money to wage effective campaigns.
Meanwhile, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), up for reelection next year, objected to public financing.
"It would make my life much easier," he said, "but I don't think my convenience is a high priority for the public, particularly at a time of Gramm-Rudman," the law that calls for slashing budget deficits.
SENATE PAC-MEN: CAREER LEADERS
Ranked are the top Senate recipients of money from special-interest political action committees (PACs) since public records were first kept in 1972. Figures include all Senate campaigns plus the presidential campaigns of Dole and Cranston and the House campaigns of former Reps. Gramm, Symms, Grassley, Daschle and Wirth.
PAC Receipts 1. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) $2,999,331 2. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) 2,455,649 3. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.) 2,236,427 4. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) 2,096,745 5. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) 2,014,184 6. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) 1,847,743 7. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) 1,820,903 8. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) 1,734,532 9. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) 1,671,890 10. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) 1,607,596
Source: Federal Election Commission.