The House voted yesterday to limit to $70,000 every two years the amount that any House candidate can accept in campaign contributions from special-interest groups.
The self-denying legislation, adopted 217 to 198 over the resistance of business and conservative groups that lobbied fiercely against it, would also reduce from $10,000 to $6,000 the amount that any so-called political action committee could contribute to a single candidate for one primary and general election campaign.
The vote was a victory for moderates and liberal Democrats, the Democratic leadership, the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, the self-styled public-interest group that had pushed hardest for the bill.
The financing limits -- propsed by Reps. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and Tom Railsback (R-ill.) -- were adopted as an amendment to a Federal Election Commission authorization bill that now goes to a House-Senate conference committee. The limits apply only to House candidates, and the Senate does not normally interfere in constraints the House imposes only on itself. But Republican opposition in this case could be strong enough to produce a Senate filibuster.
Democratic supporters in the House said the issue was how to contain the growing influence of PACs, whose number and contributions have increased greatly since 1974, when Congress voted for public financing for presidential elections.
There has been no overall limit before on the amount to one candidate can accept for all PACs. The new limit includes union as well as business campaign warchests.
"The House needs to be taken off the auction block before the 1980 elections," Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) said.
Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said, "A seat in the House of Representatives ought not to be like a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, up for sale to the highest bidder."
But Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) argued that the bill was "an incumbent protection" device, since challengers need to spend more money to overcome the name recognition of an incumbent. Rhodes also charged that Democrats were aiming directly at business, whose PAC contributions had begun to outnumber labor's. In 1978, labor PACs put $10.3 million into House and Senate races, corporate PACs contributed less -- $9.8 million. But trade association PACs tossed in an additional $11.5 million and this threw the balance in favor of business. Rhodes said as far as influencing elections go, "you've been letting labor unions do that for years. But now the shoe is on the other foot. Rather than let business gather power the majority seeks to stifle it."
Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) said if special-interest contributions were sinister, they should be stopped altogether. "You're not outlawing prostitution, you're simply setting a lower price on it," Frenzel said.
Lobbying on the bill had been intense, with some business groups hinting there would be no business PAC money in the future for supporters of the proposal. One Democratic congressman made public a letter from INN-PAC, a Holiday Inn political action committee. the chairman, Reuben Pomerantz, wrote in response to the congressman's invitation to attend a fundraiser that, because the congressman "is a cosponsor of [the bill], a bill which would further limit our freedom to participate in the political and electoral process, we could not be present." If the congressman would reconsider his position on the bill, "We may reconsider our support," the letter said.
But there was also some clout on the other side.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill spoke in favor, saying the "grab of special interests is staggering. It will destroy the legislative process. This is a matter of decency for the future of Congress."
Supporters were also helped to victory by a decision to raise the propsal's original aggregate limit from $50,000 to $70,000. While a $50,000 limit affected one-third of the House, the $70,000 limit affected only about a sixth of House members. About 176 House members were over the $50,000 limit, but only about 52 were over the $70,000 limit.
While most Republicans opposed the proposal, 29 did vote with Obey-Railsback, as did 188 Democrats. Seventy-four Democrats and 124 Republicans opposed the amendment. All four area members voted for the bill. r