19. THE NEW PAC-MEN
The Watergate scandal left us a legacy of more than shame and cynicism
-- it left us the new PAC-men. In an effort to correct the corruption
revealed by Nixon's illegal campaign financing tactics, Congress may
have done nothing more than to legalize such corruption.
Following Watergate, Congress established a system of public financing
for presidential campaigns but did not set-up similar guidelines for
their own campaigns. While they imposed a limit on the amount of funding
that could be contributed to any one candidate by individuals or groups,
they repealed an existing provision of the law that had barred government
contractors from forming political action committees (PACs).
PACs solicit money from a group of individuals who share a particular
interest -- employees of a corporation, members of a union -- and funnel
this money to the candidate's campaign. Traditionally, these are the
same groups that are involved in organized lobbying.
Thus, special interest money that previously went illegally to the
presidential candidates, now flow legally and plentifully to the Congressional
Some PACs, generally those formed to promote a particular ideology,
are also taking advantage of a Supreme Court ruling that allows PACs
to spend unlimited amounts on any candidate, providing they do so independently
of any political party or the candidate's official campaign organization.
Some groups, notably the National Conservative Political Action Committee
(NCPAC), has taken advantage of these laws to launch multi-million smear
campaigns against candidates they oppose, often with little regard for
truth or accuracy.
The ready availability of all this money is causing concern among some
Congressmen. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan) said "When these political
action committees give money, they expect something in return other
than good government."
After examining the influence of special interest money in politics,
Common Cause concluded that "increasingly political issues are
being decided not on their merits but out of deference to monied special
interests" and warned its readers that PAC "dollars are rapidly
becoming more powerful than your vote."
Historically, major reform only follows a major system-wide breakdown;
the warning signals for such a breakdown in political financing are
now plentiful. However, with sufficient media attention, perhaps we
could institute the reforms before the painful breakdown this time.
Common Cause, August 1982, "At the Mercy of the Highest Bidder..,"
by Julie Kosterlitz.