The Senate voted in principle yesterday to curb the growing influence of political action committees (PACs) on congressional campaigns but avoided any moves to apply the the principle before next year at the earliest.
By 84 to 7, the Senate rejected a motion to table, and thereby kill, legislation that would limit the amount of PAC campaign contributions that House and Senate candidates could accept. The vote technically kept the measure alive and put all but a handful of senators on record as favoring changing the campaign-finance laws.
But the lopsided vote was preceded by an agreement reached between Senate Republican leaders and the legislation's chief sponsor, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), to put off further consideration of campaign-finance changes until after hearings on the subject next year.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), Rules Committee chairman, promised Boren to hold hearings on his measure as early as January.
After the vote, Boren declared victory, saying he was "elated" by the Senate's "strong signal" in favor of revising campaign-finance laws. He said that if the Rules Committee fails to adopt legislation early next year limiting PAC contributions, he will again seek to force a vote on the Senate floor.
However, Boren failed to extract a public pledge from Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) to act on campaign-finance legislation by March. "I'm not sure I can give that commitment," Dole said, suggesting that the politically sensitive subject may require study by "some kind of a commission."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause and a strong proponent of the measure, said he was encouraged by the Senate vote. "While they ducked the issue for the present by what they did," he said, "it's coming back. They could not kill the issue. People did not want to be recorded in favor of what is becoming a national scandal."
The Boren proposal, which was offered as an amendment to pending legislation on nuclear waste, would limit PAC contributions to House candidates to $100,000 per election. The PAC contribution limit for Senate candidates would depend on the size of the state and range between $175,000 and $750,000.
The measure would also reduce the amount a PAC could contribute to a single candidate for federal office from $5,000 to $3,000 but would raise the limit on individual contributions to a candidate from $1,000 to $1,500.
Six Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), voted to table the proposal.
Before the agreement was reached between Boren and Senate leaders, it appeared that the vote on the issue would be close. Boren claimed that the opponents "threw in the towel" when it appeared they would lose. He estimated that "probably 20 to 30" senators opposed the measure but voted in principle for it rather than be seen as opposing an attempt to curb PACs.
One of the few opponents to attack the Boren measure directly, rather than on procedural or other grounds, was Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who called it a "self-righteous proposal aimed at tilting the balance of political power" away from business and other groups that have used PACs effectively.
But supporters of the measure describe the campaign-finance system and the rapid growth of PACs as "out of control" and dangerous.