The business community is highly ambivalent about the growth and effectiveness of corporate political action committees (PACs), according to a survey of 310 corporations released yesterday.
"There are two messages," the manager of an energy company's PAC told the Conference Board, which conducted the survey. "When we solicit members we tell them their contribution makes a tremendous impact. But, between us, it doesn't. It wouldn't even rent a vote, much less buy one."
Catherine Morrison, director of public policy studies for the Conference Board and the author of the study, argued that the survey suggests "that PACs buy sympathy and interest in the general position of business, but not votes."
Corporate PACs -- those set up by individual companies -- have been increasing at a far faster rate than labor PACs or PACs affiliated with trade and health organizations. From 1974 through the end of 1984, the number of business PACs grew from 89 to 1,682, while labor PACs went from 201 to 394 and trade and health organizations went from 318 to 698.
While the Conference Board study emphasizes that PAC managers see their contributions as buying access rather than votes, the growth of corporate PACs has coincided with the emergence of a significantly more pro-business atmosphere in Congress.
In this respect, the expansion of corporate PACs was part of a much larger drive involving the political mobilization of the business community, in which managers and stockholders were recruited for grass-roots lobbying and many corporations began to finance think tanks and academic research.
One of the more interesting findings of the Conference Board study is that many PACs are set up for reasons that are not directly related to the exercise of political influence.
Morrison said detailed interviews with 20 PAC managers showed that some companies set up PACs as a way to gain a public presence, instead of influencing legislation.
For some companies without the ready availability of cash to support art exhibitions or to make significant endowments to public institutions, creation of a PAC provides a relatively cheap way to get on the invitation list to public events, prestigious dinners and other publicized gatherings.
Another unexpected finding is that the creation of PACs significantly altered career patterns for some participants.
Involvement in the political process for some management employes with parochial views of the world meant that "they began to realize that there is something outside of South Dakota," Morrison said.
Plant managers who might otherwise have been expected to spend their lives working in some far-off facility became interested in a wider range of activites through their participation in the PAC, according to Morrison.
"Our PAC has made a big difference within our organization. It has given plant managers a political awareness and has increased their ability to communicate," a chemical company's PAC manager said.
Morrison said one concern often voiced by corporate officials is that the administrative costs of running a PAC are high, often 25 percent to 50 percent of the contributions raised. Under federal law, corporations can pay the administrative costs of their PACs, although corporations are prohibited from making direct political contributions to federal candidates.
When soliciting corporate management to give to company PACs, most companies provide their employes with a set of suggested "guidelines" for contribution levels. These generally range from .5 percent to 1 percent of the employe's salary, according to the study.
Along with surveying officials of companies with PACs, the Conference Board, a research organization financed by business, surveyed 118 companies without PACs.
In this group, the attitude toward PACs was far more critical. "Several of the executives questioned -- primarily senior public affairs officials -- replied that their companies viewed PACs as 'corrupting' or that they believed 'PACs can too easily become targets for politicians,' " according to the study.