The lame-duck session of Congress got generally dreadful reviews, but some people think it redeemed itself by handing the American Medical Association its head on a platter.
Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly and no Pollyanna when it comes to Congress, hailed Sen. Warren Rudman's David vs. Goliath victory over the most formidable of the special interest groups as "the first step back on the road of the politics of selfishness."
The AMA is the biggest, toughest lobby of them all. Not only does it give money -- $1,723,335 for the 1982 elections by Common Cause accounting -- but it also has, in the friendly family physician who cautions his patients against anti-AMA politicians, a lobbyist of preternatural influence.
Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer regards the victory as significant because it shows what one resolute and adept senator, a freshman Republican from New Hampshire, can do against a supposedly invincible fat-cat group.
Common Cause has declared war on the political action committees (PACs), which donated $80 million to the 1982 congressional campaigns and have covered politics with a money sludge that could sink the democratic process as it is generally understood.
The AMA had every reason to think it could get away with its arrogant demand to be exempt from Federal Trade Commission jurisdiction. The doctors won in the House on Dec. 1, even though the generally anti-regulatory Reagan administration, in the person of its FTC chairman, James C. Miller III, was against them.
Common Cause promptly revealed what may have mattered more than the merits of the bill: all but 53 of the 403 representatives who sided with the doctors had received contributions from the AMA political action committee.
But Rudman, the only member of the Senate who takes no PAC money, was waiting for the doctors about two weeks later on the other slope of Capitol Hill.
The doctors spurned his compromise amendment and were out in the hall all through the night of Dec. 15-16, buttonholing sleepy senators on their way to the chamber. Rudman noted that for the first time in 20 years, they were "making house calls"--and at 6 o'clock in the morning.
Rudman's compromise had offered to keep state control over so-called quality-of-care matters, which the AMA favored,but went against AMA wishes in proposing to retain FTC authority over anti-competitive commercial practices. What the doctors wanted, said Rudman, was status "above the law."
"Mr. President," said the former attorney general of New Hampshire, a square-jawed, cheerful man, "I do not get excited by my own rhetoric. I get excited when I see someone attempting to perform a frontal lobotomy on the free-enterprise system, which is precisely what is going on here."
He won by a healthy margin, 59 to 37.
Peters and Wertheimer say they think that what happened in the dawn's early light of Dec. 16 may have been the equivalent of the battles of Concord and Lexington in the war on PACs. Their contributions, although legal, have become the equivalent of the millions of dollars in illegal campaign funds donated by Richard M. Nixon's rich friends in 1972.
PACs of all descriptions gave their record $80 million mostly to incumbents. What they say they expect in return for their investments is access--the chance to call on an elected official from time to time. But the dismal, inescapable conclusion that intrudes on this picture of unfocused cordiality is that they expect the "right" vote on their issues.
Rudman regards PAC money as "a scandal that is waiting to happen."
Rudman promised his constituents that he would do something about it. He will try, without much hope of early success, to limit the amount of PAC funds that candidates can accept.
The scandalous dimensions of PACs are laid out by Elizabeth Drew in an exhaustive two-part series in recent issues of the New Yorker magazine. PACs have grown in number from 600 in 1974 to about 3,500 in 1982. Most of the new PACs have been organized by business, which saw them as a means of countering organized labor's groups and obviously has access to much more affluent contributors.
They give purses to powerful committee chairmen, to make them more powerful--and accessible. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has been virtually unopposed since he was first elected in 1958, and got $445,000 in PAC money this year.
Drew shows us how the Democratic Party, desperate for business PAC money, bent itself out of shape in the squalid bidding war for independent oil PAC funds in the writing of the 1981 tax-cut bill. Her masterly account offers few heroes. One of them, Rep. James M. Shannon (D-Mass.), as the story is recounted by a lawyer for the indepdendent oil producers, told them, "It's you guys who've caused this problem . . . . It's you guys who've put Congress on the auction block."
That's why the lame duck's single shining hour meant so much to so many. It said, against much contrary evidence, that money isn't everything.