SOME OF THE consequences of the 1974 Election Reform Act, under which this year's primaries and general election were conducted -- never mind whether they were foreseen or not -- are, according to critics: longer campaigns, greater emphasis on and attention to fund-raising by the candidates and the rise to political dominance of the political action committee, or PAC. The only misfortunes that someone or other has not attempted to pin on the campaign reform act are declining domestic auto sales and rising mortgage rates.
But the PAC problem is surely real. There is little question that the law that limits the individual gift to $1,000 and that allows PAC contributions to the same candidate in the same race to be $5,000 encourages a candidate to spend that very perishable resource of fund-raising time pursuing PAC dollars. In addition, the law overtly encourages the contributor of means to contribute to the PAC, to which he can give up to $5,000, rather than to the candidate, for whom there is the $1,000 maximum. That statutory limit has not escaped the ravages of inflation, either. To match the gift of $1,000 in 1974, when the law was enacted, would require an increase today to $1,713.
Should individual contributions to candidates be preferred over institutional or group contributions? In a word: yes. The candidate's perspective is important in the matter of contributions. A gift from an individual citizen is a contribution from a kind of one-person multiple source: iconsumer, employer or employee, family member, man or woman, a certain age, experience and education. Most citizens who do contribute have more than a single interest or objective. Too often, the same cannot be said of the narrow-based PACs. Typically, the PAC to Preserve the Upper Great Lakes Widget Industry cares only how the legislator votes in the subcommittee on widgets. Little, if any, attention is given to the legislator's votes on widows, orphans, veterans, MXs, or 14Bs. Individuals generally have wider interests than PACs.
Contributions to political candidates should be encouraged, especially individual contributions. One rather simple way of accomplishing that would be for Congress to reverse the limits on individual giving: to make the ceiling $1,000 on individual gifts to PACs and $5,000 on individual gifts directly to candidates.
Certainly every citizen must be guaranteed the right to present his views to those who seek his vote. Political action committees are a legitimate device for citizen action. But Pacs are not preferable to individual activity on the part of any citizen. And the individual citizen, with more than a single item on his agenda, should not be penalized as the present law does penalize him in favor of the widget industry folks.