The fund-raising skill of Northern Virginia Republican Rep. Stan Parris two years ago earned him the nickname "PAC-man" and the envy of some Democrats, who know that any race against Parris will be a high-priced endeavor.
But his ability to get money out of political action committees also has prompted criticism recently from Citizens Against PACs, a group that says campaign financing reform is needed to curb the influence of special interest groups.
"The PACs are drowning out the voice of the ordinary voter," said Philip M. Stern, cochairman of the group advocating that PACs be curbed or outlawed.
Parris strongly disagrees. Success at fundraising "is a reflection of the support you have," he said. "If a number of people are willing to contribute, it reflects the support that shows up on Election Day."
Democrat Richard L. Saslaw, who is challenging Parris, is awed by his ability to raise money. "I think what is most phenomenal about his Parris' ability to get all this PAC money is -- he's not a committee chairman, he's not a powerhouse in the Congress, he's not even a shaker and mover within his own party. Yet those guys flock to him in droves," he groused.
So far, Parris has raised $794,490, of which $240,895 came from political action committees of special interest groups. That figure mirrors his success in 1982, when Parris raised $739,600, of which $277,400 was PAC money. Parris has been able to collect more PAC money than some candidates can raise for an entire campaign.
"A lobbyist for a PAC that has given a congressman $2,500 has a much better chance of getting that congressman's ear than one of his own constituents who can't afford to contribute that much," said Stern.
"PACs do not influence the way the congressman votes," countered Parris aide Dick Leggitt. "No congressman worth his salt would ever sell his vote."
The problem, said Leggitt, is that buying radio and television advertising time in the Washington area is so expensive that a large sum of money is needed to run a respectable race in Parris' 8th District, which includes Alexandria and parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.
Parris notes that he is not alone in turning to PACs to meet those rising costs. While 30 percent of Parris' total is PAC money, Democratic challenger Saslaw has collected $95,689 in PAC funds, or 42 percent of the total $226,101 he has raised.
In the race for Virginia's 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Arlington County through northern Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf has collected about $178,796 in PAC funds or about 34.5 percent of his total. Democratic challenger John Flannery raised$102,957 in PAC money or about 49.6 percent.
"The amount of PAC money coming into this area is larger than perhaps in other areas, because so many PAC representatives live here," and thus are more aware of the congressional candidates, said Leggitt.
Most PAC representatives say that they are not trying to buy votes, but merely elect and keep congressmen sympathetic to their point of view. In turn, most congressmen insist that their votes are not for sale, although some will acknowledge they are hestitant to anger groups that might devote thousands of dollars to unseat them.
PAC representatives normally funnel much of their money to candidates serving on committees with jurisdiction over their industry. For instance, Parris sits on the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, which handles issues relating to financial institutions, trade and housing. PAC contributions to Parris include: the American Bankers Association ($1,000); the Realtors PAC ($5,000); the Credit Union Legislative Action Council ($1,500); and Associated General Contractors of America ($2,500).
Wolf sits on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, and his PAC funds include money from the Auto & Truck Dealers Election Action ($4,100); Greyhound Good Government Project ($750); General Motors Civic Association ($570) and the Chrysler Political Support Committee ($250).
In contrast, most of the PAC money going to Saslaw and Flannery are from labor groups, traditionally the major special interest money source for Democrats in Northern Virginia. Saslaw's PAC money includes: the Carpenters Legislative PAC ($3,500); American Postal Workers Union ($2,500); United Food and Communication Workers Union ($10,000); and U.S. Air Traffic Controllers ($300).
Flannery received PAC money from the United Steelworkers of America ($5,000); American Postal Workers Union ($4,000); National Education Association ($3,000); Bakery, Confectionery & Tobacco Workers International Union ($1,000); Committee on Letter Carriers Political Education ($2,000); and the Committee on Political Education, AFL-CIO ($1,500).
Congressmen cannot accept, from any one specific PAC, more than $5,000 for a primary race and more than $5,000 for the general election.
Some congressmen and citizens groups have urged that the restrictions go further, and that limits be placed on the total amount of PAC money that a congressional candidate can receive. Many have also advocated public financing of congressional campaigns.
"I think that's a terrible idea," said Parris. "It would be throwing taxpayers money in" and would reduce the role of individuals in the elections process.
"The key is total disclosure," said Parris. "If I get a contribution from the XYZ PAC and that offends you, then you can use your vote" to protest.