It has now become the rule rather than the exception for House members to raise campaign funds full- time--before, during and after the actual campaign period. In the last eight years, the cost of House campaigns has increased seven-fold, and, as any incumbent knows, a six-figure balance in his campaign checking account this year can discourage a would-be challenger from making next year's race. Rep. James M. Shannon, Massachusetts Democrat, third-termer, member of the Ways and Means Committee and as interested in reelection as most of his colleagues, recently put together a Washington fund-raising event. One representative of a political action committee whose organization is no stranger to the Ways and Means Committee asked Shannon: where do you stand on public financing of congressional elections?
Shannon bluntly told the PAC-man that he favored public financing to rid the nation of the corrosive and corrupting fund-raising system now in abuse. The PAC-man was equally candid: that will make it very difficult, he told the congressman, to raise money from the PACs. It seems that the PACs, originally formed to represent politically the interests of a particular industry or profession, have now become an economic interest unto themselves.
PACs, which now contribute nearly one out of three dollars received by congressional candidates, for the most part do not welcome public financing of House and Senate campaigns. That would mean the loss of clout on the Hill and loss of status for many of the PAC-men who are now living like the head of some ruling junta. All along K Street the PAC-men, with their control of campaign contributions, are recognized by maitre d's at the city's fanciest restaurants. When he calls a House office to which his PAC has contributed, the PAC-man is not put on hold. The primary, and usually exclusive, concern of the PAC is how the member voted on the PAC's very narrow agenda: if the member voted in subcommitteee to exclude Korean coathangers from the United States, then the Domestic Coathanger PAC does not bother itself with how the member votes on the minor issues of war and peace.
With their narrow, specific legislative agendas, most PACs are lousy institutional citizens. Legislative coalition-building, always a delicate and difficult art, is frequently made impossible by the proliferation of single- issue PACs. The arduous process of legislative and political accommodation is hindered by those same PACs. The public is not yet aware that public financing of elections would be much cheaper than the presebnt arrangement of single-interest PACs with their individual demands on the public purse or upon public policy.
PACs have become an industry, fearful of federal regulation and congressional action. Any member who threatens the well-being of PACs by supporting a cleanup of our dismal fund-raising system will risk the retaliation of the PACs. Let's hope that Jim Shannon is not alone in his willingness to stand up to them