WASHINGTON — Special interests have developed a forceful approach to safeguard their campaign investments in Congress: In growing numbers they are asking candidates to stipulate their policy positions, in writing, to be eligible for contributions.
"We ask some rather pointed questions and expect some rather pointed answers," said David Rehr, who handles contributions for the National Beer Wholesalers Assn. and champions the tactic that has raised eyebrows and opposition.
The interest groups formulate detailed policy questionnaires for the candidates to complete before they can receive campaign money. The little-noticed practice is being used by groups as diverse as the National Rifle Assn. and the AFL-CIO.
Candidates, especially challengers who often must struggle to win the support of political action committees, are obliging by the dozens.
Critics argue that the questionnaire approach is improper because it can create the environment for an illegal trade of campaign contributions for support on an issue before Congress.
PAC directors counter that the practice is straightforward and benign. "Whether in politics or business, you want to find out as much as you can before you invest in something," said Terri O'Grady, PAC director for the NRA.
"The questionnaire gives us a feel for where the person's coming from ideologically," Rehr said. The practice is growing among business PACs, he said, "because they are tired of giving to people based on personal relationships, having the person get elected and then getting stung" by adverse votes.
As groups pour millions of dollars into congressional elections, their boards of directors demand tangible results, said one interest group official. "The directors ask, 'How do we know we're making friends?' This is one way to answer that, to put a lock-hold on a vote," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Federal law prohibits candidates from promising a vote in exchange for anything of value. But legal experts say establishing a link between a campaign gift and a lawmaker's vote is elusive.
"A lot of this can be done with a nod and a wink that can be very difficult to prove--if in fact that's what's going on," said George Rishel, who until last year was an enforcement lawyer for the Federal Election Commission.
"It's a very tricky area," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "A contribution based on a promise of future action is very close to an attempted bribe."
Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), a leader of the drive for campaign finance reform, says he believes the questionnaires are "done for intimidation or discipline--take your pick."
Others are not bothered by it.
Rep. Bill Zeliff (R-N.H.) filled out questionnaires last year and received PAC contributions in return. He believes this support is appropriate, signifying that he is in tune with those groups' philosophies.
"People invest in me because they want honest, good government," Zeliff said. "I take great pride in being independent."
The NRA requires a candidate to sign and date its PAC questionnaire and to affirm that the "signature attests that the attached statements and information accurately represent the views of the candidate."
Among its questions: whether the candidate favors background checks for firearms purchases or restrictions on private ownership of semiautomatic weapons, including assault rifles.
The beer wholesalers, in a cover letter accompanying their five-page form, advise candidates: "To be eligible for support from the largest PAC in the alcohol beverage industry, you must complete the questionnaire and return it as promptly as possible."
The forms can serve a purpose beyond sorting friends from enemies. Rehr said he wouldn't hesitate to use them as reminders to any beneficiary who appeared ready to stray from his group's position. "I would probably make an appointment to see them, and remind them what they told us," he said.
Other groups who use questionnaires include labor PACs associated with the National Education Assn., the letter carriers union and the AFL-CIO. The NEA asks about such issues as use of public money to subsidize private schools through vouchers. Among the letter carriers' questions are whether businesses should be allowed to hire permanent replacements for strikers.
PACs are the political cash registers for interest groups and have become an important source of congressional campaign money. The law allows a PAC to donate up to $10,000 per election to a candidate, and in 1992 they gave $180 million in House and Senate races.
Henry Butler, an economist at George Mason University and an unsuccessful House candidate from Virginia, indicated on his form for the beer wholesalers' PAC that he opposed new beer taxes. He received a $10,000 donation.