The decade-long argument over congressional campaign finance reform, largely dormant since 1979, resumed noisily on Capitol Hill yesterday as members of a House election task force grappled with what to make of the most prominent byproduct of past reforms: the political action committees (PACs).
To Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), the PACs, which gave $52 million to congressional candidates in 1980, about a quarter of the total they raised, "fuel the cynicism that clearly exists about Congress" and crowd out the consensus-building role played by the political parties.
To Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), PACs provide a "wonderful service in offering new opportunities for people to participate in the political process."
The argument is not likely to be settled this year, but both sides believe the hearings that opened yesterday might set the stage for new legislation next year.
Since the enactment of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 197l, the number of PACs has grown from less than 100 in 1972 to more than 3,000. They are committees put together either by corporations, unions, trade asssociation or ideological groups to raise money from their members and distribute it to candidates.
Often, say the critics, the money influences votes on specific legislation.
As PACs have taken on an expanding role in underwriting congressional campaigns, the role of the political parties has dropped. A decade ago the parties provided congressional candidates with 20 percent of their funds. Now the figure is just 7 percent.
Glickman, along with Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Mike Synar (D-Okla.), has introduced a bill that would place a $75,000 limit on the amount of money a House candidate could receive from all PACs in a given campaign. Although individual PACs are limited to $5,000 to each House primary campaign and $5,000 for each general election, there is no limit on how many such contributions a candidate may receive.
For Senate candidates, the limit would float from $75,000 to $500,000 depending on size of the state.
The bill also would raise limits on individual contributions to candidates and increase the tax credits for individual contributions to candidates and parties.
"We don't want to cut the PACs off at the knees," Glickman testified yesterday. "We just want them capped."
A similar bill passed the House in 1979 but died in the Senate.
Opposition continues to be stiff, especially from the business community, where PAC growth has been the greatest.
"If the corporate community is frozen out from this type of involvement, it would probably switch to making independent expenditures," money spent to affect the outcome of a race but not contributed directly to a candidate, said Don V. Cogman, president of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees. "Our awareness levels have been awakened, and we would find other methods of involvement."