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imposed a limit on the amount of funding that could be contributed to any one candidate by individuals or groups, they repealed an existing provision of the law that had barred government contractors from forming political action committees (PACs).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 candidates instead.
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.