It is not without cause that the House Energy and Commerce Committee is called PAC heaven.
During the first seven months of 1983, in what is officially considered a non-election period, the 42 members of the committee received $1.8 million in campaign contributions. The average of about $40,000 per member was higher than for the members of any other committee in the House, and $10,000 more than the average for the House as a whole.
Most of the money came from corporate political action committees (PACs) with direct financial stakes in Energy and Commerce decisions: oil and gas money, insurance money, steel and chemical money, radio, television and motion picture money, doctor, dentist and hospital money, railroad and coal money, automaker, autoworker and car dealer money, billboard and tourist trade money, funeral home money, amusement park money, utilities money and tobacco money.
"Our committee is just great to be on if you want to raise money, no question about it," said Mike Synar of Oklahoma, the only Energy and Commerce member who refuses to accept PAC money of any sort.
"When you run every two years and you need at least $250,000 to run, it doesn't hurt to be on a committee where all you have to do is look in the mailbox to get it," he said.
This incessant offering of money can be irresistible, as the case of John Bryant, a liberal freshman from Texas, illustrates.
On the sixth day of the new year, only one night after Bryant had been assigned a seat on the committee, the Auto and Truck Dealers Election Action Committee sent him an unofficial PAC heaven membership card: a $3,000 check.
A few weeks later, Bryant gave his maiden speech in Washington at a consumer symposium, and made a quick name for himself among those who advocate public financing of congressional campaigns by saying that political action committees are an insidious influence on the legislative process.
In late February, during an interview in his new quarters in the Longworth House Office Building, Bryant said this about the issue: "Anytime someone, whether a person or a PAC, gives you a large sum of money, you can't help but feel the need to give them extra attention, whether it is access to your time or, subconsciously, the obligation to vote with them.
"That phenomenon can't be erased by changing the law, but to the extent that it is part of the common psyche of Congress, it could be reduced by some kind of reform. But I'm a realist and I play by the rules of the day. Right now, I am pursuing campaign contributions in any way I can, and I'll continue to play by these rules until they are changed."
That same week, Bryant received $500 from the Commodity Futures Political Fund, $1,000 from the National Good Government Fund run by John B. Connally's Houston law firm, $200 from the Dallas Power and Light PAC, $250 from the Dow Chemical PAC, $250 from the American Physical Therapy PAC, $1,000 from the Lone Star Steel PAC and $250 from the Independent Insurance Agents of America PAC.
In the middle of April, Bryant was the special guest at a small dinner party hosted by a group of energy lobbyists in the back room of Joe and Mo's restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Along with a number of questions about his positions on committee issues of interest to them, each brought $300 checks to help him pay off his 1982 election debt.
By the end of July, when the seven-month campaign reports were filed with the Federal Election Commission, Bryant was comfortably ensconced as the No. 2 angel in his celestial home. He had raised $134,000 in campaign contributions, more than any of his committee colleagues except Democrat Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who had raised $326,280 in his bid to win a Senate seat there.
Hovering just below Bryant were two more committee newcomers: Wayne Dowdy of Mississippi, who brought in $118,000, and Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, who received $114,000.
Richardson and Dowdy won seats on Energy and Commerce's fossil and synthetic fuels subcommittee, where last month they voted on the side of the producers on the natural gas decontrol bill.
Their campaign finance reports were jammed with the corporate names of the oil and gas industry: Amoco, Chevron, Texas Gas Transmission, Texaco, Phillips Petroleum, National Oil Jobbers, Mid Continent Oil and Gas, Cities Service, Sohio, Dallas Energy, Ashland Oil, Interstate Natural Gas, Texas Eastern, El Paso, Valero, North Texas, Domestic Petroleum Council, Arco and International Association of Drilling Contractors. In all, they gave $18,950 to Richardson and $8,000 to Dowdy, most of it in May and June when the committee negotiations on the natural gas bill were most intense.
There are two main reasons why freshmen, presumably with the least ability to influence the course of committee deliberations, are at the top of the money list. One is that they need it the most, carrying fears about losing the next campaigns and debts from their last ones. Richardson, for example, even after raising $114,000, still is $155,000 in debt, according to FEC records.
The second reason is that lobbyists want freshmen the most. Here is how one energy lobbyist explained it: "The veterans we all know about. We know where they will be on most every issue, how they make up their minds, why they make up their minds. We know how to talk to them and whether they are worth talking to. But the freshmen, they are clean slates. Every freshman represents a new chance for us. They are not players now, but they will be some day, and we can be helpful as they learn the game."
The correlation between money and votes defies precise measurement, and in the case of Bryant, Dowdy, Richardson and the 39 other Energy and Commerce members who have been closely watched by The Washington Post this session, there are no indications that special-interest PAC money actually bought any votes. On the other hand, industry does not just contribute for the sport of it.
Consider the story of U.S. Steel and Doug Walgren.
Walgren, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, is a fourth-term Energy and Commerce member from Pittsburgh, the home of U.S. Steel. He is a member of the House's "steel caucus," and over the years, for the most part, he has supported the industry's agenda in Washington.
But last year, when U.S. Steel was lobbying hard for a bill that would weaken the Clean Air Act, Walgren sided with the health and environment subcommittee chairman, Henry Waxman of California, in opposing the industry amendments.
U.S. Steel Chairman David M. Roderick was enraged. Last Oct. 11, weeks before the November elections, he sent a memo to hundreds of company executives that read, in part:
"Since he was elected in 1976, we have tried very hard to work with Mr. Walgren. These efforts were made with the hope that he would be understanding and helpful concerning issues which bear heavily on our industry. Further, to demonstrate our confidence, he has received contributions in the past from the Good Government Fund.
"To no avail. For instance, in almost every vote on the Clean Air Act amendments, he has voted contrary to our interests. In recent months, he voted for a very unwise and damaging amendment which resulted in killing any chance for significant changes in the Clean Air Act this year. He was advised before he cast his vote of its importance to us, but we were unable to persuade him to support us on this issue of vital importance . . . . Congressman Walgren should be replaced."
"That revealed something about how industry operates," Walgren said in an interview in late February. "They clearly thought that because they had contributed to me, they could expect me to vote a certain way.
"From a business lobbying standpoint, it was an interesting case study," he said. "They certainly didn't make any friends with that letter. In my view, the letter was very destructive of what they wanted to accomplish. One of the most important things for a lobbyist is to provide information, to make an offer to help, as opposed to a threat of punishment. It is rare that you hear or see a real threat like that. Experienced lobbyists know it is self-defeating. U.S. Steel revealed a lack of understanding of how the process really works by making that threat."
Four days after that interview, the old congressional adage that last year is ancient history was proved once again.
Walgren held a fund-raiser at his suburban ranch house in Alexandria to pay off his campaign debt. Despite, or perhaps in part because of, Roderick's effort to unseat him, Walgren won reelection in 1982 by his largest majority ever.
His living room, dining room and kitchen were wall-to-wall with lobbyists, and there, in the middle of it all, was the man from U.S. Steel. He had brought along a $300 check.
An old lobbying adage was proved at Walgren's house that night as well: money knows no ideology. One of the early arrivals, toting a $150 check for Walgren, was David Norcross, the former Republican Party chairman in New Jersey and now deputy counsel for the Republican National Committee.
Norcross also happens to be a counsel for a railroad located in Pennsylvania, and anyone associated with the railroads simply had to make all the Energy and Commerce fund-raisers (there were three of them) that night. Two days later, the committee would vote on the railroad retirement bill.
The practice of accepting PAC money on the eve of a crucial vote troubles many members of Energy and Commerce, and some of them, the FEC reports show, actually have returned pre-vote checks to the donors.
But what troubles them even more are the "you got bought" screams from Common Cause and other public financing advocates when they happen to vote on the side of the money.
That happened to many of them twice last year on vote to veto a Federal Trade Commission rule requiring used-car dealers to disclose defects in their cars and a vote to exempt doctors and other professionals from FTC regulation.
"There was a great to-do from the public financing groups about the used car rule," said Republican Tom Tauke of Iowa. "I voted against the rule because I thought it would do more harm than good. I thought it would just make it harder for low-income people to buy cars.
"But from a political point of view," Tauke said, "I got $3,000 from the car dealers, and the best thing I could have done would have been to vote for the rule, against them. That would have helped me politically. For one thing it would have stopped my opponent from going around carrying this little lemon on wheels as a campaign gimmick.
"There was a real political downside to my vote. I don't know of anyone very fond of used car dealers. But the best thing I have to sell to my people, my district, is that I am someone who can be trusted, who is honest. The PAC money just doesn't weigh too heavily against that."
"It is a confusing mosaic," said Democrat Al Swift of Washington, another committee member who got burned by the used-car vote. "I have always said that the ideal is public financing. I don't think the nature of contributions affects votes as much as people think, but the appearance is very great and it increases the cynicism of the public. That is an incentive to stop.
"The used car bill was popularly interpreted on the basis of who got contributions. As near as we could figure, I got $200 from the car dealers. I voted for the veto because I thought the rule was worse than nothing, that it had no teeth whatsoever. But in voting for the veto, I was labeled a sellout to the industry. That was a superficial interpretation.
"When we went to the PAC system, it made it easy to identify the special interests and their money," Swift said. "It became easy to tie votes to money. Members of Congress spent half their time doing it to each other. Any vote you make in our committee, someone can make a case that you did it on something other than the merits of the case. This is not to say money has no effect, but in so many ways you find it compensated for. Ultimately, you get back to the basis of merit. Even if you're corrupt, it has to be on the basis of merit."
The 42 members of Energy and Commerce are about evenly divided on the merits of public financing of their campaigns. On one side are voices such as these:
Tim Wirth of Colorado: "The big money is a bomb waiting to go off up here. There's gonna be some kind of scandal."
Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: "I fear we could become a coin-operated Congress. Instead of two bits, you put in $2,500 and pull out a vote."
Richard Ottinger of New York: "PACs are a corrupting influence on the process. Whether the money follows the votes or the votes follow the money, it ain't very good either way. Whether you get in with money or are preserved by it, you're going to be mindful."
And from the other side come these voices:
Billy Tauzin of Louisiana: "If you go into the business presuming that someone's contribution can influence your vote, then you either shouldn't run or you shouldn't accept contributions."
Dan Coats of Indiana: "For years labor had great influence and there was never a whisper about it. As soon as the other side acted, all of a sudden you see this horrible influence question."
Jack Fields of Texas: "I've always taken the position that I've got an established philosophy that hasn't changed because of someone who's contributed."
And then there is freshman Bill Richardson. He opposed public financing until he got into so much money trouble this year. "I wasn't a supporter before I got into so much debt," said Richardson. "But now I think it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe it should be everyone gets the same amount, the best person wins, and [expletive deleted] it." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Rep. Mike Synar is the only committee member who won't accept PAC funds. Vice President Mondale campaigns for Rep. Doug Walgren in 1978. Walgren last year overcame a U.S. Steel effort to dump him. The 42 committee members got $1.8 million in PAC funds the first seven months of this year. Photo 1 by AP; Photo 2 by Barry P. Baron