WASHINGTON -- EMILY's List -- the political action committee that helped elect dozens of women to Congress and vowed to change the way this city works -- is now using its considerable clout to protect itself from campaign reform.
The group, which doled out more money to House and Senate candidates than any other PAC during the last election, is fighting for a loophole in the campaign finance reform legislation proposed by President Clinton.
The battle is over "bundling," a technique allowing PACs to amass hundreds of individual checks into single, more impressive donations to a candidate. Mr. Clinton's proposal would outlaw bundling -- even though EMILY's List only supports Democratic candidates.
Although they have often been critical of the capital's insider ways and old boy networks, EMILY's List is now knocking on the doors of some of its biggest recipients in hopes of keeping bundling alive.
EMILY's List raised $6.2 million from 63,000 individuals during the last election cycle, which the organization in turn gave to 55 Democratic women, almost all of whom were challengers rather than incumbents. The donations averaged about $100.
EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, a comparison of the way cash helps the fortunes of candidates rise just as yeast leavens bread. Donating only to Democratic women who support abortion rights, the group claims some of the credit for tripling the number of women in Congress since 1985.
The group's success has even inspired a local Maryland offshoot called Harriet's List aimed at state offices.
By bundling individual donations to candidates, PACs can circumvent laws that restrict outright PAC contributions to $5,000 per candidate.
"Bundling checks together enables you to get the political credit for turning over huge amounts of money," said Susan Manes, vice president of Common Cause, a Washington group that has long backed campaign finance reform. "It is a massive loophole in the law that has to be closed if we are going to reform the system."
The issue will come to a head in the next few days as the Senate leadership prepares to introduce a new version of the campaign finance bill vetoed by President George Bush last year. Mr. Clinton made his own reform proposal May 7, and Senate Democrats are scrambling to incorporate his plan into the new bill.
Mr. Clinton said that while he appreciates the work of EMILY's List, "You can't just make an exception for [them]. . . . My own personal view is that the law should be the same for everyone."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat elected last year with the help of EMILY's List, doesn't agree. She has been pushing to alter the bill to allow bundling for PACs like EMILY's List that do not lobby.
If Ms. Feinstein isn't able to change the bill before it goes to the floor, she may offer a separate amendment with the same provision.
All five of the Senate's Democratic women support the exemption, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who received critical help from EMILY's List during her first campaign for the Senate in 1986.
EMILY's List raised several hundred thousand dollars for Senator Feinstein and her fellow California Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer. Another of the bill's supporters, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., received $275,000.
Although the Senate's leadership doesn't favor the loophole, many senators, especially Democrats, are anxious to avoid a public fight with a politically correct PAC that elects women to Congress. And even if the Senate doesn't act, there is a good chance that supporters in the House might include it in their version.
Opponents of the bundling exemption warn that the loophole could allow hundreds of other PACs to bundle, undermining the entire bill and weakening efforts to restrict the influence of PACs.
"It's a Pandora's box," said Donna Edwards, a staff attorney with Public Citizen, another Washington group that backs campaign reform. "People are going to be looking for loopholes after this bill passes, and we have to make sure this isn't one of them."
Advocates of campaign finance reform also criticize EMILY's List for seeking special treatment.
"EMILY's List should step back and look at themselves a bit," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the non-partisan, Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. "They are leaning on all the good-government people to change Washington but not when it affects them directly. If they get this exemption, it's business as usual."
Ellen Malcolm, the president of EMILY's List, maintains that Senator Feinstein's proposal is not another case of Congress playing favorites. "EMILY's List is real campaign finance reform," she said. "We're opening up the system so women can have a real chance to compete."
Ms. Malcolm said bundling is not a trick that PACs use to get
around limits but is instead a way to multiply the power of the small donors who form the base of EMILY's List.
Women, she explained, lack the corporate connections and old school ties that help male candidates, especially incumbents, raise money.
"We needed to figure out how to raise money from small contributions to offset the special interest money men were getting," she said. "It is not hard to get the $1,000 checks from people who have an economic stake in the legislative process. It is a lot harder to tell a teacher or a nurse how she can write a check and be represented in the next Congress."
If the law isn't changed, Ms. Malcolm said, it will be yet another case of sexism by the overwhelmingly male Congress.
"It's one more time when they just don't get it," she said. "Some members are going to hide behind the rhetoric of campaign finance reform because they are afraid of a well-funded woman opponent. They are gleeful because they can keep EMILY's List from raising money."
One alternative to bundling might be to simply ask donors to send checks directly to the candidates, said Ms. Edwards of Public Citizen.