With the best of motives and the most credible of collaborators, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) has contrived to set before his colleagues a post- Thanksgiving dish that many of them wish they did not have to face. When they get back to work after the holiday, senators will be required to vote on a proposal that would limit the amount of campaign money they can receive from political action committees, or PACs.
Like every other campaign finance "reform" I have ever seen, this one is clearer in its intentions than its likely results. But it is going to give the many senators who have been complaining about the pernicious effects of the business, labor and single-issue PACs their first chance in years to vote the way they talk.
Boren, who is one of the few members of the House or Senate never to take PAC money, has enlisted the support of two of the Senate's revered elders -- Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) -- in the fight. Alarmed at what they see as the PAC- money threat to the independence and integrity of their beloved Senate, they helped persuade Majority Leader Bob Dole to give Boren a vote on his proposal on Dec. 3. Their support makes this a different kind of "reform" effort, though still one that faces tough odds.
Boren's bill would reduce the amount each PAC could give a campaign and, for the first time, cap the total a candidate could accept from all PACs: $100,000 for a House race and from $175,000 to $750,000 for Senate races, depending on the size of the state. In return for lowering the PAC contribution ceiling from $5,000 to $3,000, Boren would raise the limit for individual gifts from $1,000 to $1,500.
Unlike my friends at Common Cause, who are promoting the Boren bill, I do not see conspiracy or corruption in every PAC contribution. The idea of individuals promoting a mutual interest or viewpoint by pooling their money and helping a candidate seems to me as American as apple pie.
But there can be too much of a good thing. In 1974, contributions from 600 PACs to candidates for Congress totaled $12.5 million. In 1984, 4,000 PACs gave those candidates more than $100 million. That is a huge difference.
More disturbing, a report by the House Democratic Study Group last month showed that the explosion in PAC giving has been accompanied by a decline in individual contributions -- especially small ones. In 1984, two of five House members seeking reelection received over half their money from PACs. That's not good.
What has happened, plainly, is that more and more members of Congress are taking the easy way out and going to the PACs rather than to their own constituents for campaign funds.
Boren tells of the advice political consultants gave him and other Democratic senators at a meeting well in advance of the 1984 election. "They told us how to work the PACs -- to hype them with polls showing we're going to win, to warn them that PACs from competing interests were contributing early, so they better kick in. Molly (his wife) and I decided we didn't want to do it that way, we didn't want to be beholden to those groups. So instead of holding 20 events for PAC representatives in Washington, we had 254 fund-raisers in Oklahoma." Boren won in a breeze, and he makes a convincing case that grass- roots fund-raising is good politics, as well as being healthy for the process of government.
But, like other proposals in this devilishly tricky campaign finance field, his plan is not a panacea.
Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is a grudging supporter at best because "it doesn't get at what I think is the central problem -- the excessive amount of money spent in campaigns."
Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, will try to table the Boren bill and, if that fails, to amend it drastically. He says that parts of the bill are of doubtful constitutionality, parts are misguided and parts are partisan mischief.
The fact is that almost all senators and representatives -- as incumbents and partisans -- have special axes to grind on issues of campaign finance. Boren is not immune. Heinz's most telling criticism is that Boren, while curbing PACs, does not propose to increase the limits on the amounts political parties can give their House and Senate nominees.
There are a dozen good reasons why the parties' role in financing campaigns should be strengthened. Boren and Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer acknowledge that. But they both recognize that, with the Republicans' clear superiority today in party fund-raising, the Democratic- controlled House will not pass a "reform" that lifts the ceilings on party contributions to candidates.
"If Heinz offers that amendment," Boren said, "I'll have to resist it, because of the tremendous imbalance between the parties. And if it goes on, I'll just have to pull it (the bill) down."
Even a Boren cannot resist partisan pressures when it comes to writing campaign-finance laws. Only the elders such as Goldwater and Stennis can view the issue apart from their own parties and careers. Their support of PAC limits is what makes this proposal credible.