The chairman of a Democratic task force on campaign finance reform has proposed changes in the law regulating political action committee (PAC) contributions that even some Democrats charge will do little to reduce the influence of PACs on congressional campaigns.
However, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said yesterday that he supports the proposal by the task force chairman, Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.). The two Democratic leaders plan to meet this week to discuss Swift's campaign finance package, which includes a broad array of changes involving PACs, voluntary campaign spending limits, "soft money," independent expenditures and other financing issues.
Swift began circulating his proposal last week and it is already drawing fire, both from outside advocates of more sweeping revisions in campaign financing and from House Democrats who fear their party will lose the high ground on campaign finance reform if they don't push for greater restrictions on PACs.
Though Swift had earlier indicated he would push for a limit of $275,000 per election that House candidates could accept from PACs, his latest proposal drops that limit. In its place, Swift has proposed a system that would reward PACs with large numbers of small contributors and penalize PACs that rely on small numbers of well-heeled backers.
"This is really the first new way to approach this issue in a long time," said Swift. "It puts PACs more in line with what they were intended to be. . . . The whole idea of PACS was to permit smaller givers to come together and be heard in the electoral process in the same way people with big money have always been heard."
Under Swift's proposal, PACs that receive contributions of $240 or less per person a year from more than 10,000 individual contributors would continue to operate under existing finance limitations, which allow maximum contributions to one candidate of $5,000 per primary and $5,000 per general election. Those PACs that have between 5,000 and 10,000 contributors who give $240 or less would be allowed to contribute $2,500 per election and those with less than 5,000 small contributors could give $1,500 per election. PACs which collect individual contributions of more than $240 would be permitted to give candidates only $1,000 per election.
Critics of the Swift plan say it would reduce contributions by only a small percentage of PACs, would tilt the system toward those large PACs run by organized labor, and would do little to reduce the increasing reliance of incumbent House members on PAC contributions.
"The PAC proposal is a joke," said Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer. "It treats the American people like fools. Under the guise of reform it locks in place the current totally discredited special-interest PAC system."
"It would not really take any money out of the system," added Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader group active in the campaign finance reform debate. "I can't believe Democratic leaders would do this."
But Foley, who said yesterday he expects to bring the Democratic campaign finance package to the floor in July, said he finds Swift's PAC proposal an acceptable route to reform that would preserve the role of small contributors.
However, some House Democrats are pressing Foley to back greater restrictions.
"How can you have a debate on campaign finance reform without debating PAC limits?" said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). "As a Democratic Party we ought to be seen as the party of constructive change, not the party that is obstructing it."
"Reform has to reduce the dependence all candidates have on PACs," added Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio). "We don't want to have this issue stolen from us."